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WEEKEND READING: Thank you! Finally, there is strategic senior support for moving away from a helicopter model of social mobility to focusing on systemic change

  • 12 June 2022
  • By Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Dr Neil Harrison

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility, and Dr Neil Harrison, Associate Professor of Education and Social Justice, from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter.

Katharine Birbalsingh, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, argued in her inaugural speech that we need to shift our focus from fixating who gets into Oxbridge to other social mobility gains. 

‘Thank you’ summarises the relief felt among social mobility scholars.

Rags-to-riches stories have crept too far into the world of education-based social mobility.  Cinderella is one of only seven archetypical plots of human story telling. This explains the universal appeal of this transformation. But it really is time to collectively grow up from the fairy tale:

  • Cinderellas are not representative of what change is needed to enhance and change opportunities for the many.
  • Cinderellas are often unusual – they have particular personal attributes (a house maid who is exceptionally beautiful, a disadvantaged child who is exceptionally academically brilliant) and particular opportunities.
  • Moreover, Cinderellas are locked into zero-sum games – there is one prince in the fairy tale and only 1 per cent of undergraduates are educated at Oxbridge. The prize is precious and scarce. Winning changes an individual’s fortune, future and circumstances – but it doesn’t challenge or change existing structures. 

Government and indeed third sector schemes have been focusing too much on what we would term ‘helicopters’ that help Cinderellas to escape: the prince is a romantic helicopter whisking Cinderella away; elite education helicopters hover over disadvantaged communities to identify one or more chosen individuals they are seeking to save from their disadvantageous circumstances, often – not unlike Cinderella – never to return. The helicopter allows the chosen person to board, transporting them into a palace or educational establishment with no or minimal impact on social context they left behind. The drama of the helicopter ride sends our emotions racing and implies a rescue has taken place. We can then celebrate Cinderella’s rescue through her wedding and the elite education story through our award dinners with those we helicoptered out. 

Entire government and charity schemes have been designed on the helicopter model. For example, the former ‘Assisted Places’ scheme paid the private school fees of over 75,000 high-achieving children from low-income families in the United Kingdom between 1981 and 1997 at a cost of around £800 million. The helicopter of the private school operated without challenging why children were deprived in the first place or why it was felt that state schools were unable to offer them relevant educational opportunities. 

Equally, there are a range of non-governmental schemes that support academically high achieving disadvantaged youngsters to consider and gain entry to selective universities and particular courses.  Activities include summer schools and targeted interventions and mentoring. The communities and their dynamics remain unchanged. And, the next year, the helicopter visits again and the loop of rescue is repeated. But also repeated is the loop of legitimising – not changing – the systems that have given rise to the need for rescue in the first place. 

Privileging individual merit and creating the ‘deserving poor’ (Cinderella is kind and pretty, the disadvantaged children are academically able) means the structural dimension of their inequality remains unacknowledged and unaddressed.  Stories of individualised social mobility thus ultimately help legitimise continued inequalities as meritocratic and fair and reflective of individuals’ ability and skills.  Also, we assume a lot about those we are rescuing: Cinderella should be delighted to marry a rather unknown prince simply because of his social status and disadvantaged students should be equally delighted to study at Oxbridge and opportunities for large salaries tied to a new life elsewhere.     

The alternative? Less glamorous but hopefully meaningful for a greater number of people. First – and here we are perhaps more radical than Katherine Birbalsingh – it is about critically engaging with what young people want, discussions of what possible future they could aspire to and how this aligns with their hopes and wishes for their lives. Elite higher education may or may not be part of the plan. Apprenticeships might be. Having good options that may or may not involve geographically uprooting would help: good local employment and personal growth opportunities, good education and healthcare and affordable housing in sustainably developed community contexts. Increasing opportunities outside the big urban centres. Shifting a discourse from measuring graduate success in only monetary terms to thinking about whether people are supported in living the lives they want. 

So we welcome the beginning of new narratives in the space of social mobility. Helicopter schemes and rags-to-riches tales do have some value – they do for the individual beneficiaries and perhaps as a short-term ‘circuit breaker’ to disrupt specific patterns of deprivation. But challenging the basis of social reproduction of educational inequalities in the long run and enhancing structural contexts is a better, albeit less glamorous, route for tackling social mobility.

We are delighted this is now becoming mainstream thinking at the heart of national debates.   


  1. Fiona devine says:

    Excellent Anna and Neil. Well done! Worklogr long range mobility is not the only game in town. Great for a few but not the many.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have been feeling this way more and more strongly for a while, although my personal nickname for the chosen few was ‘unicorns’.

  3. Yes yes yes! Anna and Neil, what a wonderful way to frame this important (and massively overdue) discussion. We need to focus more on (a) what individuals need to be successful *in their* communities (ie ‘grow our own’ and (b) what local communities need to support economic (and cultural) regeneration and growth.

  4. John Brennan says:

    Yes, I agree completely. But what is also still missing is any credible policy to support downward social mobility. As well as providing space for more upward social mobility, there would be both social and economic benefits from supporting downward mobility for the stupid and lazy occupying senior positions. But the downwardly mobile would also need support to acquire the basic skills to look after themselves. Maybe some universities could provide courses to support this.

  5. albert wright says:

    The idea that “…..there would be both social and economic benefits from supporting downward mobility for the stupid and lazy occupying senior positions.” is an intriguing subject of which I would like to hear more.

    We could start with politicians, including the House of Lords – but age should not be the main criteria for filtering out the first cohort.

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