Social mobility and political inertia

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
21 Jul 2009

If there's anything more disheartening than this week's report on social mobility, it's the government's response to it.

The report, commissioned by the Prime Minister and produced by twenty “experts” chaired by Alan Milburn, points out the dire lack of social mobility in the UK and notes that it has become even worse in recent years. This largely tells us what we already knew, that for all the talk of aspiration and meritocracy, the reality is that most people in Britain live and die in the some social class into which they were born.

Milburn throws up his hands in horror at this situation, a response which is reported to be shared by Peter Mandelson, whose mega-department now appears to cover universities. There is something laughable about the disapproval of social trends expressed by the same people who have been running the country for the last twelve years, as if it was nothing to do with them. It's like someone criticising the food in a restaurant, when everyone knows that he's the chef.

By continuing the Conservatives' adulation of big business and worship of the wealthy, New Labour contributed to a situation in which the gap between rich and poor is on a level with Victorian times. It is some measure of how far things have moved that the introduction of a 50% tax rate for a tiny number of affluent people was seen as some sort of lurch to the left, rather than a belated and feebly limited attempt to require the people who take most out of society to put a small bit of it back.

The response of Milburn and Mandelson, trumpeted on the front page of yesterday's Guardian, consisted of a bullet-pointed list of unambitious edge-tinkering changes to higher education that are unlikely to do anything to change the way that the UK's education systems function to maintain inequality and privilege.

As a working class student at Oxford in the nineties, I quickly learnt that the main division in British society is not between working class and middle class, between white and black or between north and south. It is between the very rich and the rest of us. It is often assumed that the wealthy send their sons and daughters to Eton, Harrow and Oxbridge in order to give them a better education. In reality, the assembling of upper class people in such institutions means that they mix largely with other upper class people, make good contacts, learn how to make the “right” impression and generally grow up to continue the traditions and power into which they were born. A “better” education has nothing to do with it.

If Mandelson were serious about tackling educational elitism and social immobility, he would be reversing the student fees that his government have introduced, not about to increase them. He would also be introducing quotas on the number of privately educated students that any university is allowed to take. Given that below 10% of the population goes to independent schools, it would be generous to allow a university to take up to 20% of its new entrants from them (the figure for certain elite universities is currently around 50%). Some put forward the absurd argument that this would “discriminate” against privately educated applicants, as if Etonians were a marginalised group. The reality is that it would be a small and very partial correction to the discrimination from which privately educated students would have benefited in the eighteen years prior to their applications.

This would go some way towards reducing the stranglehold of the upper classes on British higher education. This is a legitimate way to use the university system – it is there to benefit the whole of society; that is why it should be funded out of general taxation. However, much, much more needs to be done to address “social mobility” problems. This includes tackling the inequality of schooling generally, a mammoth task for which any list of starting measures could never be long enough. This could include ending the injustice of charitable status and tax exemption for independent schools, stopping faith schools from practising religious discrimination in recruitment and opposing selective schools, particularly those which seem to select on the basis of class as much as ability.

In reality of course, very few of these proposals have much chance even of being considered by ministers who are firmly committed to rejecting any major change to social and economic structures. The very fact that they speak in terms of “social mobility” demonstrates their approach. While they seem at least to be interested in the idea of people being able to move from one social class to another, of children leaving poverty when they become adults, they fail to ask why they live in poverty in the first place. The lamentable failure of mainstream political parties to commit themselves to equality is a big part of the answer. As Labour MP Jon Cruddas had the courage to say yesterday, it is equality to which the government should commit itself.

Major changes to education policy – of the sort way beyond those being talked about - would be a big step towards helping to build a more equal society. But without a commitment to social and economic egalitarianism, we can never hope to have equality of opportunity, the chance for people to fulfill their potential or what the government would call social mobility. Yet twelve years after this government came to power, ministers are expressing horror at inequality of opportunity and presenting supposed solutions that involve barely anything more radical than reform of the national careers service.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia.

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