The country should draw upon 100 per cent of its population rather than relying upon just 7 per cent of it.
The country should draw upon 100 per cent of its population rather than relying on just 7 per cent of it
Speaking at the TUC conference this weekend, the leader of Britain’s trade union movement Frances O’Grady warned of a ‘Downton Abbey-style’ society in which social mobility ‘has hit reverse’.
Similarly, a recent report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission provoked near universal consensus around the theme of meritocracy (or more accurately, the lack of it).
Almost everyone agrees with the loose notion that the UK’s lack of social mobility poses a problem, often prefacing their statements by noting the commission’s findings should come as ‘no surprise’.
Of some interest, since the media fared particularly badly in the commission’s assessment, were corrective suggestions issued by The Spectator, in a piece that generally echoes the commission’s prosaic but necessary recommendations such as an end to unpaid internships (the report notes 83 per cent of new journalism entrants do internships, of which 92 per cent of are unpaid, before suggesting with almost comic understatement that this ‘might’ be freezing out those from less advantaged backgrounds).
The admission from Fraser Nelson that more should be done to promote social mobility may be welcome, but one cannot help but feel that understanding the scale of the problem casts doubt on the value of the incremental measures he proffers.
The right may be willing to scour state schools for those displaying ‘mustard keen’ enthusiasm and provide them with every material support available, but leaving the surrounding structure intact effectively guarantees that this will remain a rare occurrence.
There are many reasons why working class candidates are disadvantaged in the race for high profile positions, but the current balance is so skewed that only steps that visibly shear the vast cultural gulf between a largely private educated elite and the disadvantaged majority will help us overcome our social mobility deficit.
That means, among other things, and unfortunately for some, the abolition of private schools.
The right’s invariable revulsion to this idea stems from an obvious source: it comes across as interfering and threatens the sanguine ideal of a meritocratic dream, memorably expressed in the form of a breakfast cereal analogy by Boris Johnson. The suspicion among the right, and no doubt some on the left, is that private schools are simply that adept at producing stand-out candidates, and should not be punished for their success with radical measures that threaten their very existence.
Private schooling does bestow tangible advantages in resources and help produce greater academic achievement of course, but it conveys something more than that. Uppingham School’s Richard Harman locates the additional advantage of private schools in their capacity for ‘developing pupils’ talents, creativity, character and individuality’.
More sceptically, Miriam González Durantez says elite institutions add ‘gloss’ to their graduates. The characteristic they are grasping for is a sense of self-entitlement; something that can never be enjoyed by comprehensive school students as long as they are smart enough to realise they aren’t on the inside track.
It’s a quality firmly dependant on the fact that competition for prestigious positions is effectively zero-sum and it rests on a perception of relative advantage, meaning it can’t be fostered throughout the education system. It’s also a characteristic that can only qualify as ‘merit’ by the most dubious of classifications.
Right-of-centre commentators like Fraser no doubt take comfort from the fact that tremendous persistence can theoretically earn anyone a place in the country’s journalistic elite and consider the removal of material barriers a levelling of the playing field.
Similarly, Nelson’s colleague Hugo Rifkind elucidated when engaging with a reader that his privileged background played little role in the numerous ineffectual submissions he made to newspapers before earning membership of the lauded circle of commentators he now resides in – the same avenue is open to all should they wish for it.
This may be so, but it has to be recognised that a less privileged candidate, even of the same ability, would have to be in possession of an audacious temperament to exhibit such lofty ambitions when they can only imagine the sensation of wielding national influence – rather than look to peers, contacts or relatives for examples.
They would be far more likely to interpret repeated rejection as confirmation of that distinct feeling that such roles are reserved for other people, even if they managed to gain an appetite for political debate among an increasingly apolitical working class and even if material support is available to leverage their interest.
Commentary positions, in common with the other roles examined by the commission, are roles premised on the notion that people care about what the writer has to say – a notion those from humbler backgrounds must persist in believing contrary to the sum of all evidence thus far, which suggests no one cares about what they think.
The very existence of a cadre of elite institutions ensures a suspicion that the fast-track to influential positions is located elsewhere, whilst the uniform accents exchanged on political programmes offer embarrassing discouragement to aspiring commentators from impoverished regions.
The premium placed on self-belief in obtaining prominent positions means that the cynicism fostered by decades of entrenched privilege likely kills a number of talented working class careers at birth or shortly after. The broader population already thinks that obtaining positions is dependent on nepotism rather than merit, display little trust in any major institution and are faced with an elite that looks and sounds nothing like them.
There is nothing fair about this cultural context, and there is little meritocratic about a competition that flows from these iniquitous origins.
We could coach our state school graduates through this broken process, mitigating against its worst excesses, or we could question its value in the first place and take the more radical steps necessary to shatter the reciprocal links between privileged education and high profile positions.
Certain degrees of advantage can never be eliminated and an agenda for more equal opportunity certainly extends far further, but the segregated nature of our education system stands as tempting a first port of call as a progressive could ask for.
We would of course sabotage these great institutions who excel at churning out first-rate candidates. We would thus either lose a tiny but steady stream of cohorts who have been instilled with a preternatural degree of character unobtainable in lesser institutions, or else quickly adapt to privileged candidates with less ‘gloss’.
Either way, my suspicion is a country that comes closer to drawing upon 100 per cent of its population rather than unduly relying upon 7 per cent will be pleasantly surprised by some of the new talent it is compensated with.
Dominic Ashton is a political researcher and writerLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.