Social mobility tsar wants focus on 'smaller steps' for working class people

Katharine Birbalsingh was the focus of an ITV documentary called Britain's Strictest Headmistress. Credit: ITV

The UK's social mobility tsar has said there is too much focus on working class people getting to the top and people should focus instead on those taking "smaller steps" up the ladder.

Katharine Birbalsingh, who is chair of the government's Social Mobility Commission, says there is too much of a focus on people from poorer backgrounds going to top universities and finding prestigious employment.

Instead, more attention should be given to people taking small steps up the ladder - from the bottom and to the middle rungs, she argues.

“We want to move away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom to the top - the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO,” Birbalsingh is expected to say in her first speech as commission chair.

Katharine Birbalsingh explains her views on ITV's Lunch Time News

“We want to promote a broader view of social mobility, for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives, sometimes in smaller steps,” she will add while speaking at an event hosted by the Policy Exchange.

“This means looking at how to improve opportunities for those at the bottom - not just by making elite pathways for the few - but by thinking about those who would otherwise be left behind.”

Ms Birbalsingh, who is headteacher at Michaela Community School in London, will say there is not a  “a one size fits all model of social mobility” and she believes success has too often been defined as a caretaker’s daughter going to Oxbridge and becoming a top surgeon.

Social media users reacted with fury to the government adviser's comments, with one person on Twitter saying she was "breathtakingly wrong".

Another said her views were "wrong and insulting" while someone else said the suggestions were "ridiculous".

Others however were supportive of her claims, agreeing that focus should also be given to those who do not aspire to reaching the top.

Ms Birbalsingh - who was the focus of an ITV documentary called Britain's Strictest Headmistress - sparked another controversy in April this year by saying female students don't choose to study physics at school because they dislike "hard maths".She said "physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it".

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The headteacher, asked at the Science and Technology Committee why so few girls progressed to physics A-level, said: "I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do."

Elaborating, she went on: "The research generally… just says that’s a natural thing."

Ms Birbalsingh complained on Twitter at the time that her quote had been taken "out of context" and "it is OK if we don’t have an exact gender balance in all subjects".

Her commission is expected to revise the way it measures social mobility in the UK to, according to the government, provide a more accurate view of who is moving up, down, or staying put.

The new social mobility index will compare where people start and end, in their occupations, incomes, and other outcomes, all across the UK to show who is mobile, and where.

“It means being clearer about where mobility is working well - and being clearer about the various factors which help make this happen.”