Cinderella and the Two-Way Staircase of Social Mobility

Once upon a time, in a land far away (Greece, if you must know) there lived a young slave girl who had her shoe stolen by an eagle. Rather fortuitously, the eagle dropped the shoe into the lap of an Egyptian king, who then set out on a quest to find the owner of said footwear and deliver its wearer from a lifetime of servitude. King finds girl. King marries girl. Happy ever after all round.

First recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in the first century BCE, this oral tale  – called Rhodopis and Her Little Gilded Sandals – is  the first known version of the ever-popular Cinderella story. Since then, up to 1500 variants of this classic tale have done the rounds, with the version we know best today deriving from Charles Perrault’s 1697 rendition. Its enduring popularity owes more than a little to its capacity to reflect contemporary cultural concerns at any given time, assuaged by the comforting thought that all will turn out well in the end.  Feminism? Modern slavery? Dysfunctional families? Big ticks for one and all. You get the idea.

Audiences lucky enough to catch the latest retelling of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Tony Award-winning Cinderella can expect a modern, feisty leading lady (Ella) but can also anticipate all the favoured tropes of the genre: pumpkins, glass slippers, wicked stepmothers …

And then there’s that staircase, the ultimate visualisation of a change in status. The staircase takes centre stage with good reason – for what could more overtly illustrate the protagonist’s rags to riches story than this smack-you-in-the-face symbol of ambition? The problem with a staircase, of course, is that it’s easier to descend than ascend. Let’s not forget that, at the start of this story, Ella is comfortable and wealthy. Blink, and it’s gone. She lands at the bottom with a thud. This could almost be a facsimile of what happened when the pandemic hit: one minute, complacency rules; the next, the proverbial rug pulled from under us. How is it possible to start – or restart – that arduous climb to social and financial security, short of marrying a handsome prince?

Australia is a country that has long been associated with social mobility – the measure of which is our potential to earn more than our parents did. This is still possible for some – we all know of digital wunderkinder who land plum jobs in the tech industry, or use their savvy to make a mark in business. But the 2022 World Population Review indicates that Australia, while still holding its own against the social mobility powerhouses such as the Nordic countries, offers less opportunity for economic advancement than it did pre-pandemic. Opportunities for upward social mobility are shrinking.

If money is the measure, it is easy to comprehend the threat of the stepmother in Cinderella. Throughout history, stepmothers have been associated with wickedness, which may well be due to the stepmother’s claim on their share of the children’s inheritance: money and material possessions – the markers of success. Stepmother and stepdaughter cannot both occupy the same position at the head of the staircase. That’s simple physics. Likewise, there are more people jostling for fewer opportunities in today’s marketplace. If Australia’s chances of upward social mobility are diminishing, what is the antidote? While there are many variables affecting social mobility, there is one crucial element that cannot be denied: education.

While the traditional Cinderella was able to secure a more prosperous future simply through looking fetching, such a solution is now hopelessly out of date. The vital role of education – reliant upon good quality teachers – in social mobility is something that the new government clearly acknowledges: back in May, they pledged to offer students with an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) of 80 and above up to  $12000 per year to study for an education degree. Tanya Plibersek is reported as saying, ‘I want students competing to get into teaching like they do to get into medicine or law’.

Powering recruitment is all well and good, of course, but with a high turnover of high-achieving teachers, more needs to be done in terms of retention – failure to hang on to good teachers does little for the life chances of today’s student population. With 35 per cent of Australian parents opting to remove their children from government-funded education in favour of private schools (a figure that has doubled over the last 30 years), this does not bode well in terms of social equity. Moreover, a 2022 UNICEF report indicates that Australia is in the bottom third of OECD countries in terms of egalitarian education provision. As a result, the gap between the disadvantaged and the more privileged is widening rather than narrowing. Poor Cinderella has next to no chance of escaping serfdom and getting her hands on a comfortable income…

Education and social mobility are inextricable, and the post-covid landscape points to a plethora of problems in urgent need of addressing. One Leader of English at a school in Caringbah, New South Wales, cites two key factors compounding the current crisis, namely the shortage of casual staff (many of whom found alternative employment due to the pandemic), and poor pay incentivisation. With annual increases significantly below the rate of inflation. Inducements may entice high quality teaching staff, but consistent acknowledgement of their value is what will keep them in the profession.

Dwindling opportunity for upward social mobility is not uniquely Australian, of course – in the post-pandemic world, it’s ubiquitous. In Britain, for example, the Sutton Trust (a charity that specialises in social mobility through education), recently reported the ‘bleak’ prospects of realising any dreams disadvantaged young people may have of ever earning more than their parents did. A grim reality check – but if education isn’t the answer to economic progression, what on earth is?

Rather than sit around and wait for her prince to come to the rescue, the Ella of today’s Cinderella takes it upon herself to climb her own staircase and break that glass ceiling. This is a story not about a dream, but a goal – a goal built on the foundations of an independent spirit, forged by the power of education.

In today’s climate, ascending the social mobility scale is a Herculean prospect. But a good education at least makes the bottom step of the staircase a realistic possibility. Without it, we can kiss any chance of a happy ever after goodbye.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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