Monday 25 November 2013

Britain's social mobility problem

By Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2013

TWO decades ago, Mr John Major accomplished a remarkable feat: He became Britain's prime minister despite having come from a poor neighbourhood school in Brixton, one of London's most deprived areas, and boasting no university degree whatsoever.

Sadly, his personal example of social mobility was a one-off: Britain soon reverted to form when Mr Major was replaced by Mr Tony Blair who, notwithstanding his claims to be a socialist, was educated at an expensive private school and then Oxford University.

The current British government conforms even more to this narrow social elite profile which has ruled the country for centuries: Prime Minister David Cameron and his key ministers went to Eton, the grandest of all private boarding schools, followed by, needless to say, Oxford. Mr Major did not, after all, herald a new age of opportunity.

Still, Mr Major, now retired and in his 70s, remains passionate about social mobility. In a recent speech, with a vehemence that stunned political observers, he lamented the fact that "in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class". "To me", he added, "from my background, I find that truly shocking".

PM Cameron, who belongs to the same Conservative Party as Mr Major, scrambled to defuse the criticism by acknowledging that in Britain "there is not as much social mobility as there needed to be". But although he pledged to "do far more" to increase diversity, the government announced no concrete steps.

Social classes and the ill-defined, but very real, glass ceilings they impose are some of Britain's defining characteristics. They permeate people's entire life, from the choice of schools and universities to jobs and even the vocabulary used: whether you ask for a "serviette" or a "napkin" defines your social status in a split second.

A large influx of immigrants, a massive internal migration from countryside to towns and the rise of working-class pop idols were all meant to have rendered such distinctions irrelevant; Cool Britannia was supposedly classless. But Britain remained obsessed with class: Immigrants were simply lumped together as "foreign", people about whom nothing needs to be known, while the rest continued as before.

Does it matter? Yes, a great deal.

The top five private fee-paying schools (which the British confusingly call "public schools") send more people to the top universities of Oxford and Cambridge than 2,000 state-maintained schools put together. And those who make it into "Oxbridge" are more or less assured a good career: A third of all Members of Parliament, half of all medics and chief executives of top corporations and no less than 70 per cent of all judges come from these two universities alone. And although the media usually prefers not to dwell on it, so do 54 per cent of all British journalists, including this correspondent.

Defenders of the system claim, with some justification, that this is all the result of good education. Nevertheless, it is still the case that even if a child is very bright and able to pass the entrance exams at both a top private school and Oxbridge, his or her parents will need to shell out a minimum of $60,000 per year over at least a decade for this to become a reality.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, social mobility has hardly budged. The prospects of half of all the children in Britain remain utterly predictable from birth by simply looking at the social position of their parents; that is the worst performance in the industrialised world. And in many respects, class distinctions are becoming more entrenched: Statistics show that a poor child born in 1970 is less likely to have gone to university than one born in the late 1950s partly because his parents cannot afford to pay for good schools, but also because the poor have diminishing aspirations about the prospects of their children.

An obvious way around this problem would be to sever the link between money and academic achievement which, in turn, unlocks employment opportunities: That is what France did, where the top National School of Administration remains unashamedly selective, but entry is on merit alone and fees are paid by the state. Yet that cannot happen in Britain, where state-sponsored scholarships to reward academic excellence are dismissed as "elitist", and politicians enjoy instead the pretence of class warfare.

Whenever it is in power, the Labour Party threatens private schools and Oxbridge colleges with financial penalties if they do not take in a "more representative sample of society". The threats are ignored and most of Labour's leaders end up sending their children to the same elite establishments.

The Conservatives, in turn, engage in tokenism to defend the system: Mr Cameron suggested this week that he has promoted more MPs of Indian descent, a true but hardly relevant assertion. Meanwhile, it is perfectly acceptable to dismiss someone in public as an "upper-class twit" but completely unacceptable to call anyone "working-class" to his face, yet all these niceties make no difference to social mobility.

Some sensible initiatives are happening. A group of MPs from all parties have got together to suggest ways of tackling the problem. Citing evidence that measures aimed at families with young children were more effective at boosting social mobility than strategies aimed at 16- to 18-year-olds, the MPs are suggesting that children aged just three should be given basic literacy lessons.

But that raises accusations of a "nanny state", of governments interfering with the way parents raise their young. The government is toying with other ideas, such as paying incentives to good teachers to move to badly performing schools, or redirecting social welfare spending to childcare. But all these measures will take decades to produce results, and are bound to require more financial resources.

So, at least for the moment, little will change. The current Conservative government may lose power in 2015. But if this happens, the next premier will be Labour's Mr Edward Miliband, the son of a distinguished Marxist academic and a graduate of Oxford.


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