Natalie Bennett: ‘Social mobility’ for the exceptional few is not enough

We need to radically change society, not just allow a few bright kids to move up in it.

Yesterday, the House of Lords asked the government how it would respond to the Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto, containing 10 steps to improve social mobility.

I wouldn’t disagree with any of the modest proposals, except perhaps Open Access Scheme to private schools, on which I have serious doubts. One of the major mechanisms for creating inequality in our society does not provide a way to solve it.

I particularly applaud the call for a ban on unpaid internships and the call for the restoration of maintenance grants for students, both issues that the Young Greens have long campaigned on, and also for contextual admissions to highly selective universities, so they are selecting students based on their capacity not how much money was spent on their education.

But what we are talking about here is a small plaster stretched impossibly thinly across the gaping wound of inequality, poverty, struggle, that robs the UK of the realisation of so much of the human potential of our society.

And as Baroness Morris of Yardley said in our debate, far too much of this discussion focuses on the situation of “a few bright children” trapped in communities scarred by poverty and inequality. It fails to talk about the situation of low-attaining pupils in the same circumstances.

Just consider figures just out showing 86,000 homeless families housed in bed and breakfasts. What chance have those children to be developing their full potential under such difficult conditions? Maybe a few exceptional individuals might escape their difficulties, but by definition, most people are not exceptional.

What is being talked about here is what the sociologists call “individual social mobility” – the rising of a few people, supposedly because of innate talent and ability, while leaving the vast majority of people in the communities they live in the same difficult circumstances as before.

Now there are seriously questions about how this is meritocratic. How is ability identified? Does “ability” mean capacity to pass exams – which just test how well you do exams – or the ability to comply with requirements to fit into different cultural frames?

But there’s a bigger question. Why help a few? How much other talent is being wasted, while communities even robbed of the contributions of these few if, as so often happens, they move away, physically or socially?

Far more progressive, far more productive, would be “structural mobility”, in which large numbers of people, whole communities, are given the opportunity to raise the quality of their life, their opportunities to contribute – by say for example working to deliver a just transition through a Green New Deal.

But I’d like to go even further than that in thinking about social mobility – by abolishing the need to talk about it at all.

If we have a society in which every job is respected, decently paid, acknowledged as important and making a contribution, then people can make choices of their job based on Interests, talents and abilities. 

We need careers and street sweepers, school dinner helpers and sewer cleaners. All of those jobs contribute – if you consider the NEF study on contributions to society, cleaners give more than bankers. They are crucial to our society, and should be respected and well-paid.

People should have the chance to change that over their lifetime, to grow and develop through lifelong learning and on-the-job training, to create a secure home environment in which their children are also able to develop their full potential.

In a far more equal society, starting perhaps with the Green Party policy of ensuring the top paid person in an organisation isn’t paid more than 10 times the pay of the lowest-paid, and a genuine living wage for all workers, including the young and apprentices, people could take up different roles, without fear of want, and contribute as suited them.

And please, if we’re not talking about individual social mobility, let’s also ban the term “poverty of aspiration”. I don’t know anyone born not wanting to aspire.

Some in our society are beaten down by the obvious poverty of opportunity in their lives. Let’s not blame them for realistic understanding of their place in our current society. 

And encouraging greater aspiration is actively cruel, if there isn’t opportunity to match it.

Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, a member of the House of Lords and a contributing editor for Left Foot Forward

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