How Can We Increase Social Mobility?

Clegg: Social mobility ‘vital’ for UK economy

It was announced on 22nd May 2012 that the government is to publish an annual “snapshot” of social mobility, by measuring information such as educational achievement, access to professions and birth weights. In making the announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that being able to advance at work and in learning was a “vital ingredient” of the UK’s economic success. Wasted talent was a “crime” which hurt society, he added.

Labour claim that social mobility is going backwards under the present administration while campaigners claim that social mobility in the UK has reduced since the 1960s. It has reached the stage where the government has commissioned former Labour Health Secretary Alan Milburn to investigate the issue. Mr Clegg said

“I strongly believe that opening up our society is a vital ingredient in our future productivity. Wasted talent is always a moral crime, but it is increasingly an economic crime too. The Sutton Trust’s own work has suggested that boosting poor educational attainment up to the UK average would increase GDP by £140bn by 2050, and increase long-run trend growth by 0.4 percentage points. Social mobility is a long-term growth strategy.”

The government will publish an annual set of 17 indicators which will include the proportion of children under five on free school meals achieving a “good level of development” compared with other children, attainment at age 16 of those eligible for free school meals and higher education enrolment by social background.

Is Social Mobility Declining?

The sad reality is, that for all the government rhetoric about improving social mobility and ensuring that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t matter, they do. And unless there is a seismic shift in the mindset of those who are in a position to make the necessary changes and that of the general population genuine social mobility will never exist. It is unfair therefore, to lay this problem entirely at the door of the coalition government. This problem has been building for many decades if one takes the parliamentary political arena as an example. The first British Prime Minister to be recognised as such was Sir Robert Walpole who served from 1721 to 1742. In the subsequent centuries we have had 55 Premiers and of these 41 or 75% studied at Oxford or Cambridge. In addition 19 or 34% have been old Etonians including David Cameron our current leader. And if that wasn’t of enough concern the recent steps have been backwards even if it did appear for a while, during the latter half of the 20th Century, that we were making positive strides. From 1964 to 1997 all our elected leaders from Harold Wilson to John Major were educated in state schools. This changed with Tony Blair and we have been served by privately educated men for the past 15 years. In addition, within the current administration:

  • 50% of our cabinet were privately educated
  • 2/3rds of the 119 Ministers in the coalition were privately educated
  • There are currently 20 old Etonians in Parliament of whom 8 are in cabinet

Within wider Parliament 33% of all MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons were educated in public schools compared with just 7% of the general population. Furthermore, if we look at the leaders of the three main parties we see the following:

  • David Cameron: Prime Minister – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • Nick Clegg: Deputy Prime Minster – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • George Osborne: Chancellor of the Exchequer – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • Ed Miliband: Leader of the Opposition – State Educated and Oxbridge
  • Ed Balls: Shadow Chancellor – Privately Educated and Oxbridge

Consequently, social mobility has been in decline for some time and this has been exacerbated by the increase in Conservative MPs at the 2010 election as higher proportions of them will have been privately and Oxbridge educated compared with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

How Can We Increase Social Mobility?

There is no easy answer to this as there are almost certainly many factors that prevent it. But the first point of reference would appear to be an examination of the changes in the educational system from the decades immediately preceding Harold Wilson’s Premiership through to Tony Blair taking office. In addition it may be worthwhile looking at each of their family backgrounds and educations for common factors.

Secondly, we need to change our own mind-sets. Whilst it is much harder for state educated men and women to achieve high office it is not impossible. If 33% of MPs are privately educated 67% are not and if 75% of Prime Ministers have been privately educated 25% have been educated in state schools. Furthermore, if Oxford and Cambridge are accepting a disproportionately high number of public school students by rejecting large numbers of equally qualified state school students as we know they are then we must examine what suitable discrimination laws can be brought to bear. Recent figures show that between 2007 and 2009 four public schools sent 946 pupils to Oxbridge compared with 927 pupils being sent by 2,000 state schools. Whilst, it is fair to say that public school pupils are in a position to receive a good standard of education is also certain that there are many thousands of equally talented young people who never achieve their potential in society because their parents cannot afford the public school fees. And that does not allow for a true meritocracy.

Finally, we have, as a result of living in a monarchy for the last 1,000 years (with the exception of the interregnum), come to accept without question that those who rule over us are there because they are the best people to do so when the reality is that they rule by birth right regardless of merit. This point is raised not to discuss the controversial topic surrounding the pros and cons of the monarchy but merely to highlight an element of the British and in particular English psyche. That is an inherent unflinching belief, albeit subconscious, that there is a ruling class in this nation who are born to oversee things and the rest of us cannot possibly hope to aspire to political power even if we don’t agree that they always know best. And it does seem that there are two parts to this ruling class, the aristocracy whose power seems to be diminishing and the financial elite who can afford to educate their sons and daughters in the right schools. This results in an elite few who continue to hold the reins of power because they have the money to maintain their authority.

We must therefore, teach our children that all men and women are equal, regardless of financial status and inspire them to reach their goal in life no-matter how impossible it may be. If we don’t it will be bad for the economy but not in the way envisaged by Nick Clegg. It will be because the real talent who can bring our great country out of recession and create a fairer society for all will remain outside Westminster looking in and never have the opportunity to play their part in making things better.

In the meantime we must hope beyond hope that this government really does wish to improve social mobility and await the outcome of the report with interest.

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