Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why social mobility should not be abandoned

Writing for the Guardian's CiF Owen Jones argues that 'social mobility provides no answers for the vast majority of working-class people. It's time we abandoned it.' I enjoyed Owen's piece greatly and agreed with much of it but in many ways I think he misses a larger point.

Despite Owen's protestations it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves; often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it. However there are clear consequences for future social mobility that many "left-leaning" (Guardian-reading) parents often choose to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can – and do – raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils, have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities. What's more they have (during the recent boom years) recruited from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage.

One issue on which Owen and I may well agree on is the old fashioned (possibly even an "old Labour") view that parents who espouse views about fairness, justice and redistribution but opt out of the state sector and send their children to private, fee-paying schools, choose to become part of the problem, rather than seeking to be part of the solution. Why do so many parents apparently talk left but act right, advocate change but seek to protect the status quo? One reason is that many middle-class parents perceive there to be little political mileage in calling for the reform of private schools and more equal access to universities. This is because those who already have influence, those who already have a "voice" in our society, have such a high stake in the current order they, almost subconsciously, mobilise and organise in order protect it. I am firmly of the view that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.

Far from abandoning the idea of social mobility I think we need to set about creating a society that reduces the real barriers that prevent people from certain social backgrounds achieving their full potential. I agree that personal progress should never be measured by the extent to which individuals escape their social background, but we must also accept that in order to overcome entrenched privilege and vested interests we must actively seek to open up society and end the present 'closed shop' that has, for too long, stifled meritocracy by supporting an aristocracy of the elite.

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