Social immobility in Britain: don't blame the parents

The Deputy Prime Minister has revealed a strategy aimed at improving the life chances of disadvantaged pupils at state schools. A good start, but what is needed is structural change to Britain, one of the lowest ranking countries for social mobility in Europe.

Stuart Weir
17 May 2012

The charge of hypocrisy inevitably clings to Nick Clegg’s professed commitment to social mobility.  But it is worse than that. The greater charge is that he seems utterly blind to the part that class and the privileged position of those in the higher reaches of the class system and of their children play in the distribution of life chances – the most obvious of which is the existence of high-class public and private schools with their networks into Oxbridge and the Russell Group of leading universities. 

Clegg is right to criticise New Labour for its half-hearted efforts to begin to right the balance. He and Michael Gove both accept that the UK is one of the most socially immobile countries in Europe, with a stronger link between parental income and children’s progress in life than anywhere else in the continent.  Gove indeed has dramatically illustrated the dominance of public school educated adults in almost every area of public and private life.

And so Clegg has unveiled a social mobility strategy based on state schools’ use of the £1.25 million “pupil premium”, leaving schools with a high proportion of children on free school meals – i.e., the children of the poorest families – discretion over how they actually spend the money.  The emphasis will be on the role that better schools can play in educating disadvantaged children and  making up for the absence of committed and educated parents.  Public schools are being trotted out as the role model for the state sector with all their extra-curricular “character building” activities. We will hear more of the numerous studies that show that children of poor families are spoken to less, encouraged less, read to less, and that they live under huge stress and disadvantages.  It’s the poor wot will get the blame. 

But just train the telescope on the managerial and professional classes, the educational benefits their children enjoy from the moment they are born, first in the home and then throughout their privileged education, and the networks of power and access that then await them.  Here is a structural class advantage that the children of the poor will never break through – though there will always be the exceptions, a Sugar here, a John Humphrys there, to suggest that our so-called “aspirational society” is on course. And the truth is  not merely that the coalition is doing no more than New Labour,  but ministers are actually removing and cutting back on policies that were beginning to make a difference, such as the educational maintenance allowance and Sure Start in particular; and they are as much relaxed about the growing inequalities in incomes and wealth that determine people’s life chances as Mandelson and Blair were.  

As for the idea that state schools need only adopt the character building ethos of the public schools - well what a nonsense! Their pupils are already well ahead of the children of poorer parents from the age of five and go on to consolidate the advantages of class as well-educated, self-confident and ambitious young adults with connections to desirable careers. Yes, by all means invest in a state education of a higher quality; begin even to trust state teachers.  But secure housing, and employment, for all parents are as important as better schools, as well as measures like the EMA and Sure Start.  Piety, as I have said before, is not enough.

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