The battle for social mobility

Today sees the publication of Alan Milburn’s Panel on Fair Access to the Professions final report. The following are two of the earliest responses in the media with a few observations of my own.

The battle for social mobility
Lee Elliot Major,, Monday 20 July 2009
“The failure to turn around the UK’s dismal level of social mobility may haunt Labour even more than Iraq or Afghanistan”

Interesting report that locates the solution to the lack of social mobility in the UK in the education system. The last time social mobility was at a high level in the UK was with the enormous increase in white collar and managerial work created by the expansion of the public sector and a rapidly growing corporate sector after the 2nd World War, all supported by a consensus around Keynesian economic policy. While the labour market is shrinking, as it is now, even a successful policy to increase social mobility will only rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic or (for those that haven’t seen the film) shuffle the pack. Every move up from the bottom10% means a someone else will take the place. There will always be a bottom 10% of course.

Professions ‘reserved for rich’
BBC News Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Some rather mixed messages from this report so I guess I’ll have to get around to reading it! On the one hand it wants pupils from schools in underprivileged areas to be able to compete with the children of educated middle-class and professional families. This will entail finding a way to find surrogate forms of some aspects of the social capital they lack. One strategy offered is to create some State provided ‘pushy parent’ equivalent. However, it’s not evident how a surrogate network of informal contacts, well placed relatives, the ability to provide resources and engage with children’s learning (i.e. ‘discussing’ assessment work) will be provided or the money for foreign visits and cultural events, let alone the mindset that says “the world is mine and I deserve it”. All this is pre-university entrance. On the other hand there is an implication that HE institutions should provide the support required by less well prepared students to close any deficit gap.  I suspect that many Universities would say this is not our job and admissions based purely on merit would not require this anyway. The other issue that warrants attention is that a perception that large numbers of perfectly well qualified children of middle-class and professional families are being excluded due to positive discrimination for the children of the less educated and wealthy could lead to an intensification of exclusionary tactics and a reinforcement of private education and the growth of private universities. The networks of power operate outside of the education system just as effectively as within. The proposed policy seems based on the idea that education is the key. It is important but there are many other powerful process that determine access to the plum jobs in addition to educational achievement. A cursory inspection of history and sociology demonstrates that the powerful are past masters at preserving their advantage in the face of historical and legislative change.

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