Private school privilege must be tackled
According to the Social Mobility Commission’s ‘State of the Nation’ report, inequality is now entrenched in Britain.
It requires urgent government action to tackle one of the great ‘burning injustices’, which Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to confront.
Based on a comprehensive trawl of government data and official statistics, the Commission finds that social mobility has been stagnant for many years with a “wide gap in school attainment and income between the rich and the poor”.
The report concludes that privilege is ingrained in all aspects of British life, with the better off 80% more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from a working-class background.
Even when people from disadvantaged backgrounds move into the professions, they earn 17% less than their more privileged colleagues.
Britain has some of the worst social mobility in the developed world. And social mobility has worsened as inequalities in income and wealth have widened.
Access to private school education, and to top universities, is driven by such inequities, and further embeds unequal access to the top professions, including the crucial decision-making apparatus of parliament, the civil service, and the judiciary.
There was a policy concentration on improving social mobility during the New Labour years, replicated in part by the Cameron and May-led governments.
However, without a corresponding commitment to reduce inequalities, this has produced a society in which the odds remain firmly stacked against those from poorer homes.
Analysis of wealth by tenure reveals the scale of such inequalities: outright home owners, with a median net wealth of £475,000 have 36 times the wealth of social tenants.
Social tenants have been disproportionately hit by austerity policies since 2010. Almost 6 in 10 social tenants have collective assets in the bottom tenth of the wealth spectrum.
Such disparities clearly stunt social mobility and make a real meritocracy impossible. As academic Jo Littler has observed:
“Meritocracy today involves the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’ to combine with ‘effort’ in order to rise to the top. This idea is one of the most prevalent social and cultural tropes of our time, as palpable in the speeches of politicians as in popular culture”.
The result of these widespread views tends to preclude action that would categorically level the playing field – such as development of a more progressive income tax system, introduction of a wealth tax, and dismantling the privilege of private schools.
Instead, the Social Mobility Commission recommends laudable but minor tinkering; such as: extending childcare to more low-income families; raising per pupil funding by a significant amount and introducing a new pupil premium for disadvantaged students in that age group; and encouraging companies to become accredited real living wage employers.
Social mobility campaigners have been recommending these sorts of actions for many years now – to very little effect.
At the same time, greater shares of income and wealth are being corralled by the rich and the welfare state creaks under the weight of a decade of austerity.
Against this backdrop, improving social mobility remains a pipe-dream.
Kevin Gulliver is director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute. He 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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