The government's latest social mobility report fails to address core problems
Yet another government report on social mobility falls short of identifying the real problem with modern Britain – rapid growth in inequality since 1979 ongoing austerity since 2010.
The report, Time for Change, has charted two decades of failure and few successes. It points to how new divides across English regions, between social classes and between generations have fragmented society further.
Governments from New Labour onwards have sought to promote social mobility and meritocracy in the face of rising inequality in incomes, wealth, opportunities and life chances, proposing solutions that don’t confront the fundamental issue.
Policy prescriptions to advance social mobility and meritocracy flatter to deceive since they are incapable of overcoming the barriers to moving from lower socio-economic backgrounds to higher ones since these are shaped by inequality. What’s more, there is extensive evidence that more equal societies have greater social mobility; and indeed, higher economic growth.
The upshot is that social mobility has worsened since the 1970s as inequality has grown. This is reflected in the presence of public school educated individuals in the higher echelons of the economy and society.
While only seven per cent of children go to public schools in the UK, former public school pupils make-up 24 per cent of University Vice-Chancellors, 32 per cent of MPs, 51 per cent of top Medics, 54 per cent of FTSE-100 CEOs, 54 per cent of top journalists, and 70 per cent of High Court judges.
The reasons why are obvious. Why would the rich spend considerable resources on educating their children privately if they are not buying privilege for their children’s future through a better education and access to influential networks. No top of this, unpaid internships in politics, the City and the media can rarely be accessed from educated young people from poor backgrounds.
Let’s take our former Prime Minister David Cameron. His parents spent at least £300,000 (in today’s money) on an Eton education. He then went to Oxford where he was a prominent member of the Bullingdon Club. The way for a media PR job was smoothed by his future mother-in-law. Then the Conservative research department, a SPAD to Chancellor Norman Lamont, then a safe seat, leader and finally Prime Minister.
In the face of such privilege, how are working class kids supposed to compete when their recent inheritance is austerity that is set to reduce the incomes of the bottom 40 per cent of households over the next five years. Closing Sure Start centres, cutting local government services, welfare benefit cuts, stagnant wages at the bottom, insecure employment, and the rise of food banks is not a promising backdrop to creating a meritocracy.
If social mobility policies worked, there would be far more evidence of ‘riches to rags’ as well as ‘rags to riches’. People from privileged backgrounds would be moving into lower socio-economic classes as the sons and daughters of working class parents would have increasingly greater representation in top jobs.
That this is not happening suggests that promoting greater levels of equality – through a more progressive tax system, introduction of a wealth tax, tackling the charitable status of public schools and reshaping internships – should be the primary policy goal.
Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, is former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign, but writes in a personal capacity.
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