The Spectator

Onwards and upwards | 25 July 2009

The Spectator on social mobility

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Having your prospects in life determined at birth is the most pernicious and fundamental form of inequality. So the present political focus on improving social mobility is to be welcomed on principle. To think that all the advantages and disadvantages of background can be ironed out is delusional; short of a Spartan-style nationalisation of child-rearing, how could such a level playing field even be attempted? But this country could — and should — go a lot further towards broadening equality of opportunity: a 2005 report funded by the Sutton Trust found that Britain came joint last with the United States in this respect in a survey of 11 developed economies.

It is shocking, and depressing proof of how foolish it was to abolish grammar schools, that the 7 per cent of the population educated privately account for three quarters of all judges, 70 per cent of finance directors and a third of MPs. But the problem is not with the 7 per cent; the problem lies in the education offered to the other 93 per cent.

Too often in Britain, the debate about mobility has concentrated on the number of state-educated pupils getting into Oxford and Cambridge, as if they were the only universities worth going to and as if university admission were the only useful test of mobility. But this misses the point. The real problem is the gap that has emerged long before the age of 18: independent schools produce more pupils with three As than the entire comprehensive sector. That, rather than cases like that of Laura Spence, is what needs to be addressed.

The most encouraging aspect of Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility, commissioned by the Prime Minister and published this week, is its recommendations on education. Its findings reflect a recognition that the core problem is the failure of the state sector, and the woeful inadequacy of the service it offers the least affluent. As one of the few Labour politicians with the courage to admit that social mobility has, in many respects, declined, Mr Milburn proposes to offer the parents of children at failing schools — half of the schools located in the most deprived 10 per cent of the country are failing — a voucher for their child’s education worth 150 per cent of state funding: roughly equivalent to £10,000 per annum. Enabling these pupils to go private would not only improve their life chances, as the old Assisted Places scheme did, but also drive up standards in the state sector because failing schools would be forced to improve or have all their students leave. This is a similar, and in some respects more radical, approach to that already adopted by the Tories, who are proposing that money follows the pupil and that parents and voluntary groups should be allowed to set up new schools.

We earnestly hope that a new consensus will emerge in due course, founded upon the basic recognition that the state must loosen its stranglehold on schools. In order to help the poorest pupils, our education system urgently needs competition: different sorts of schools, paid for but not run by government. And more resources should be directed at educating the poorest. The main priorities of the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, remain to appease the teachers’ unions and town halls, and to play to the Labour gallery in advance of the coming leadership contest. But the fact that the Prime Minister offered James Purnell (a reformist by instinct) the schools brief in the last reshuffle, suggests that even he might dimly, grudgingly be aware that fresh thinking is required.

Social mobility is enhanced when poverty of aspiration is banished. If people believe that their future is determined by their birth, or are consistently told that this is so, such prophecies tend to be self-fulfilling. For all its flaws, the idea of the American dream is a powerful social tool. As a country we should celebrate those like Mr Milburn who have risen from a council estate to high office.

Social mobility in Britain has not recovered from the closure of the grammar schools. The current composition of the Tory front bench is testament to how the gap created by this act of educational vandalism has been filled by those who went to private schools. This is scarcely surprising. What is surprising — scandalous, in fact — is that no major party has the guts to promise to open more grammar schools, although the public is overwhelmingly in favour of such a strategy. How craven is it possible for our political class to be?