Culture, Connections and Sixth Form – breaking the class barrier
Guest blog – Ross Maggs (Head of Sixth Form)
In February 2019, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison produced a thoughtful piece in the Guardian, detailing the advantages of class in UK society. To summarise their findings, they pointed out that even in the same elite professions those from a working class background earn on average £6400 less than their middle-class colleagues. Their research indicated that whilst education did matter, there were three other key mechanisms that accounted for this disparity:
- Family money enabling individuals to take greater career risks
- Mentoring, via connections
- A cultural ‘fit’ that allowed individuals to be ‘seen’ as part of the same tribe as senior management.
Given these factors, it would seem that Friedman and Laurison are arguing that social mobility based on exam results alone will always be doomed to failure if it doesn’t take into account other ‘unconventional’ measures of performance and merit.
It’s similar thinking that drives FBS to provide its ‘whole education’. This isn’t a simple mantra but a recognition of the difficulties faced by many of our boys and the challenges ahead. In first establishing the school, and now in setting up the Sixth Form, we’ve looked to see what we can provide to prepare boys to be successful in the modern workplace. And as an incredibly diverse school, with 20% private school boys rubbing shoulders with 40% of young men living in social deprivation, social mobility is at the heart of everything we do.
Firstly, let us address the issue of risk taking. Obviously if someone has financial support behind them, they may feel willing to take larger risks. However, it is important to recognise that the opportunities do still exist for everyone – so how best to encourage that ‘leap of faith’ for those without a financial cushion?
FBS’s philosophy is that if a boy has been exposed to risk taking throughout his school career through an organised enterprise programme, then he will become accustomed to this notion of risk, reward, and importantly dealing with and being resilient to setbacks. At FBS, this starts in Year 7 and builds through to our Sixth Form, where all boys will have the opportunity to lead, to create societies, to build their own enterprises, and to fail and regain their footing. By providing the boys, via the FBS Foundation and our school’s extensive contacts, with direct access to the kind of entrepreneurs who have succeeded from a range of different backgrounds, they will have first-hand access to those who have taken big risks and excelled. Thus, by imbedding enterprise in everything we do, we will go some way to offsetting the relative advantages produced by financial security.
Turning to the hidden cultural rules that may limit the progress of working-class boys, and the lack of mentors to help them on their way, FBS again feels well placed to help crack the class ceiling. The school’s unique culture, combined with the opportunities available at Sixth Form and across the school as a whole, provide extra-ordinary access to different cultures and value systems, and opportunity to recognise what the differences are between the formal and informal, between the media world and that of medicine. By mixing with a thoroughly comprehensive intake, engaging in our far-reaching careers development programme, and accessing mentors – whether they be engineering students at Cambridge University, web designers from Shoreditch, or Met police officers – our boys are guaranteed that not only will they socialise with boys and staff from different backgrounds but that they can develop some of the connections, often from an early age, that will give them the inside track in both the UCAS application process and also the future world of work.
One should not however, conclude that we are expecting FBS boys to abandon their own cultural values and all merge into some bourgeois entity, who only speak or behave one way. Rather, we’re giving them the courage to stand up for what they believe in, to challenge the status quo, whether it be the faith inherent to the practice of a Christian school or the global battle with climate change. But they also need to have the ability to understand when a different set of social skills and social behaviours may be a harbinger of success, and that knowledge can only be developed by access to and association with all aspects of society. FBS boys learn and have opportunities to express themselves, to be different and to be confident, and they also learn when and where the right ‘fit’ may be important.
Yes, we think opportunity does exist for everyone, especially in London, and yes, cultural factors can be barriers to working class achievement regardless of skillset. As Friedman and Laurison point out:
“Of course, we don’t mean to say there is no such thing as talent, or that career success is unrelated to individual skill or ability. Instead, our key point is that the identification of merit is inextricably intertwined with the way it is executed, facilitated, and recognised.”
And so, yes, at FBS we are out to challenge those barriers. Academic performance or inherent talent are not the sole factors in success, which is why we’ve not set up our Sixth Form simply to become an exam factory. This would not be preparing the boys for their futures. Across the school as a whole, we will always strive to educate and equip our boys academically, culturally and morally for whatever path they choose. However, this education does with a price. We expect our boys to be mentors in the future, to be leaders and to have the moral courage to recognise and support those from all of the backgrounds that they rubbed shoulders with at school.