Social mobility in UK secondary education and links to PATA theory

Social mobility in UK secondary education and links to PATA theory
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Financial disadvantage for children and families in the UK is a historic, persistent and growing problem, affecting the long-term wellbeing and life chances of young people (The Equality Trust, 2022; Social Mobility Commission, 2014). The gap in secondary education achievement between students from low socioeconomic (SES) households and their more affluent peers continues to widen, increasing inequality and hindering progress (HM Government, 2015; 2017, 2021). Social mobility in the context of education focuses on how best to “close the education gap” and thus reduce the economic gap between low SES households and their more affluent peers (The Equality Trust, 2022). Eyles et al. (2022, p6) acknowledge that “low levels of social mobility indicate a degree of inequality of opportunity in society, with adult outcomes overly dependent on children’s background”. Despite significant research, strategic funding and schools providing innovative interventions (Eyles et al, 2022; HM Government, 2021a), the educational gap between low SES families and their more affluent peers continues to widen.

Research conducted in the context of higher education provides key insights into a new lens through which to look at the conundrum of education and social mobility. Psychosocial and academic confidence alienation theory (PATA) (Jones, 2021; Jones and Nangah, 2020) focuses on identifying barriers to student engagement by analyzing the individual student’s psychosocial status and the relationship this may have with academic confidence. In addition, Jones and Nangah (2020) recognize the heightened impact and influence of traumatic exposure experienced by disadvantaged students as an additional layer contributing to barriers to education. Insights from these studies (Jones 2021; Jones and Nangah, 2020) made it reasonable to explore this new theoretical concept in the context of secondary education.

These insights led to a systematic review that applied the lens of PATA theory (Jones, 2021) to the secondary education sector to better understand current educational and social mobility challenges (Jones, 2022). PATA theory (Jones, 2021; Jones and Nangah, 2020) has been divided into educational themes of social mobility and disadvantage, detachment and alienation, trauma and trust. The main findings of this systematic review (Jones, 2022) found that;

  • England’s northern cities and coastal towns continue to experience the greatest levels of educational and socio-economic deprivation (Marmot, 2020). For disadvantaged secondary school students, school attendance and engagement are critical to improving learning outcomes and equal opportunities. However, SES students who are persistently excluded or absent from school, disengaged from school, or feel excluded from school may also be at increased risk of involvement in child abuse or delinquent county activities (Children’s Society, 2022; Lamrhari et al., 2021 ). This reveals an additional detrimental effect of alienation on education.
  • Exclusion and alienation hinder the educational progress of disadvantaged pupils and thus affect the progress of social mobility.
  • Unaddressed gaps in educational attainment among disadvantaged high school students have been found to increase educational gaps and thus alienation.
  • It has also been found that students who exhibit challenging classroom behavior, characterized by alienation and withdrawal, pose significant challenges for teachers and schools.
  • In addition, the self-concept and self-esteem (psychosocial) status of disadvantaged students can positively or negatively affect their ability to engage in education.
  • Disadvantaged middle school students’ home-to-school approach and ‘educational’ changes in primary education pedagogic practices have also been found to influence disengagement and alienation among disadvantaged students. Positive student-teacher relationships in secondary school have been identified as critical to reducing alienation and disengagement.
  • Alienation can be owned by the student, but it can also be perpetrated by the school system’s behavior management practices.
  • In addition, it has been found that neurological changes caused by traumatic experiences can impair young people’s response or behavior in the school environment and can significantly affect confidence.
  • Behavior management systems and strategies used in secondary schools can also affect the ability of disadvantaged students to build confidence. Whole-school positive behavioral interventions embedded in the school’s vision, mission and cultural ethos can help improve the confidence of disadvantaged students.
  • Nurturing relationships with the school and educators can help build trust based on transparent assessment practices, mutual respect, and supportive and consistent relationships.
  • Disadvantaged students who have experienced trauma and exhibit withdrawn and alienated behaviors require stronger interventions to build confidence, build their self-concept and self-esteem (psychosocial), and thus their academic confidence in educational contexts.

The results revealed that secondary education was identified as a pivotal stage where efforts were identified to promote changes in educational progress that contribute to the advancement of social mobility for disadvantaged students. In addition, this systematic review acknowledged the absence of specific literature related to PATA theory set in the context of disadvantaged secondary school students. This confirms the originality of the new concept in the fields of education, social mobility, children and society (Jones, 2021; Jones 2022). Finally, this systematic review provides evidence of the complexity and relevance of PATA theory to issues of social mobility in education (Jones, 2022). These established references could provide a useful tool for reviewing current learning practices for disadvantaged students. Thus, highlighting the implications of the insights presented here that could be of interest to the child and youth sector, the educational psychology community, educational policy makers, and international groups that share similar social policy, social mobility demographics, and education systems.

List of links:

Children’s Society. (2022) County lines and the criminal exploitation of children. [online]

Eyles, A., Elliot Major, L., Machin, S. (2022) Social Mobility – Past, Present and Future: The State of Social Mobility, 25th Sutton Trust Jubilee. Center for Economic Activity and the Sutton Trust. [online] Social-Mobility—Past-Present-and-Future-final-updated-references.pdf

HM Government. (2015) Policy Paper: 2010-2015 Government Policy: Education of Disadvantaged Children. Department of Education. [online]

HM Government. (2017) Unlocking Talent, Realizing Potential: A Blueprint for Improving Social Mobility Through Education. Department of Education. [online].

HM Government. (2021). 2020/21 academic year: schools, students and their characteristics. Department of Education. [online]

HM Government. (2021a) Study on early education and development (SEED): findings from the coronavirus (COVID-19) follow-up. Institute of Education Policy. Department of Education. [online]

Jones, C. (2021) Exploring barriers to student engagement in higher education: Evidence for alienation theory of psychosocial and academic confidence, Advances in Educational Research and Evaluation, 2(2), p. 153–165. doi: 10.25082/AERE.2021.02.002

Jones, CS (2022) Education and the social mobility puzzle : examining the ‘alienation theory of psychosocial and academic confidence’ in the context of disadvantaged pupils in the UK secondary education sector. Journal of Children and Society, pending.

Jones., C, S. and Nangah, Z. (2020) Higher education students: barriers to engagement; Psychological Alienation Theory, Trauma, and Trust: A Systematic Review, [online] Perspectives: Higher Education Policy and Practice, 25:2, 62-71, DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2020.1792572.

Lamrhari, D., Maitland, H., Morris, C. and Petty, J. (2021) Youth voice on school exclusions. Children’s Society. [online]

Marmot, M., Allen, J., Boyce, T., Goldblatt, P. and Morrison, J. (2020) Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review, 10 years on. Institute for Health Equity. [online] file:///C:/Users/55131884/Downloads/Health%20Equity%20in%20England_The%20Marmot%20Review%2010%20Years%20On_full%20report.pdf

Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. (2014) Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility. London: Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. [online] Cracking_the_code_Final.pdf (

Equality Fund. (2022) Social mobility and education. [online]

For more information, see the open access publication at Children and society:

Jones, CS (2022). Education and the conundrum of social mobility: Exploring the ‘alienation theory of psychosocial and academic confidence’ in the context of disadvantaged pupils in the UK secondary education sector. Children and society.

Information about the author:

Caroline Sarah JonesMA in HE, PGCHE, BA (Hons), SFHEA, Dip Ed, Associate CIPD, Manchester Metropolitan University, Brooks Building, Birley Campus, Bonsall Street, Hulme, Manchester, Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE), M15 6GX

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