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Equal opportunity is fantasy in any society this unequal
Declining social mobility has exposed Labour’s delusion that huge gaps in wealth do not harm poor children’s chances
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 July 2009 23.30 BST
Everyone thinks they want a society in which each child has the same chance to succeed according to their own talent and hard work, regardless of social background. Of course they do. Every politician mouths the same platitude, every party affirms it in its manifesto. Tony Blair spoke movingly of the day when two babies, rich and poor, born into the same maternity ward, would have the same opportunity to flourish – and he meant it. Of course he did. So did Gordon Brown when he set up the social mobility panel, under Alan Milburn, which reports today.
But on Labour’s watch, class has become more rigid, destiny for most babies is decided at birth, and the incomes of rich and poor families have drawn further apart. Labour didn’t mean that to happen and has tried to reverse it. Tax credits, Sure Start, nurseries for all, much better schools, many more university places and apprenticeships almost certainly stopped inequality growing far worse. Since Labour’s babies are still only 12, the long-term good effects of these programmes should prove deeper than current figures show: Milburn says he sees signs that the decline in social mobility “has bottomed out”. At last GCSE results are becoming less closely tied to parental income than before. But all the same, in Labour’s time the haves have accumulated more and made even more certain that their children would be haves too. The ladders up from bottom to top have grown steeper. The barriers preventing the rise of interlopers have grown higher, while the safety net preventing even the dimmest privileged children from slipping downwards has grown stronger.
That was the context when Brown surprisingly asked Milburn to investigate how to improve social mobility. Why Milburn? Perhaps as a sop to an old foe, but more likely because Milburn is as an arch-third wayist who would not frighten the horses by over-emphasising the true cause – gross inequality of wealth and income. Nonetheless, expect the report’s 90 recommendations to offer strong condemnation of the way top universities, professions and businesses perpetuate class privilege in their recruitment policies. Success will depend on persuading professions and employers that it’s in their interest to recruit from a deeper talent pool than the public school-educated cadres that dominate the bar, journalism, medicine, upper ranks of the civil service and all the most desirable jobs. The findings will make dismal reading, showing how the over-coached mediocre but well-spoken applicant with an easy manner wins over the brighter one from a bad school whose A-levels are a personal triumph against high odds. Milburn points to research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing that state school students with two A-level grades lower than private school students will get as good or better degrees.
He goes out of his way to emphasise that this isn’t just about the poor, but about families on average incomes with high aspirations for their children who lack the contacts and influence to push their children into top slots. The rise of unpaid internships gets the blast it deserves. It’s free labour slavery for the young who can afford to do it and yet denies access to all without parents to support them. All kinds of professions gladly take in bright graduates for free, so their CVs shine with experience their less fortunate contemporaries lack. It should be banned under employment law: instead the recommendation here is for a code of practice with a Kitemark, requiring wages and grants. Milburn is pressing for a permanent social mobility commission of distinguished experts to report every year, just as the child poverty target was fixed in law, with an annual progress report. It won’t make it happen, but it will embarrass any government that lets it slip backwards.
One of the report’s main authors, Geoffrey Vos QC, former chairman of the Bar Council, also chairs the Social Mobility Foundation, which organises high-grade mentoring and two-week taster internships in investment banks, chambers and businesses for clever pupils from schools unused to sending students to top universities. He tells of one investment bank that sends staff out a few days a year for community work in schools; when his foundation suggested it would be more useful if they invited in bright pupils to teach them about investment banking, they refused. The programme was designed to widen the experience of banking staff, not to mess up their office with inconvenient school students. The same famous investment bank had a special programme to assist the sons and daughter of its employees to follow in their parents’ footsteps – social immobility guaranteed from the very same gene pool. Too many top employers choose recruits in their own image – people they feel comfortable with – when what they will need to succeed is diverse staff to face a diverse world.
The report will put a deadly black spot on some cherished government programmes: Connexions, the £470m careers advice and teenage support scheme, Aimhigher and the Gifted and Talented school programme get short shrift. Instead it wants money diverted to making universities sit on the board of every secondary school – close school-university familiarity giving timely advice to 14-year-olds on choosing exam options works best in helping pupils upwards. Expect radical suggestions for training, skills and schools, though axing fees for undergraduates who live at home risks making it less likely poor students will travel to better universities.
On social mobility, Labour willed the ends without confronting the politically difficult means. Equality of opportunity doesn’t happen in any society as grossly unequal as this. The report shows graphically how the only countries that nurture talent regardless of class are those where incomes and lifestyles are most equal. The Nordics do best, because the ladder from top to bottom is short: it’s easy to climb and the social penality for slipping down is less. The US has the least mobility and the steepest ladders, despite the persistence of the anyone-can-make-it American dream. Britain lives with the same delusion, but Labour has learned the hard way that you can’t allow the well-off to keep acquiring more and at the same time hope the children of the poor can catch up with rich children’s life chances. Social mobility is not a separate programme that you can add regardless, like pepper and salt.