Why the lack of social mobility is a threat to us all

“They all ended up going to the City to do jobs they didn’t understand, yet ended up making oodles of money.” Nic Newman, talking about his fellow pupils at his public (private) school, quoted in article by Nicholas Hellen, ‘How Tim Nice But Dim Stays Ahead’, The Sunday Times, 26 July 2015. 

“A Party that cannot gain power without a big share of the working and lower middle-class vote cannot afford to be led predominantly by a group of Old Etonians, however gifted they may be. This makes a bad joke of democracy and nowadays it is seen that way, especially by the younger generation. It is also dangerous because when a majority of our leaders come from the same social strata, far removed from ordinary life, they are unlikely to make decisions which are acceptable to ordinary people.” Reginald Bevins The Greasy Pole. Hodder and Stoughton (1965), p.156.

Fifty years ago today Edward Heath became the first Conservative to be elected as the party leader – by MPs – and the first state-school educated Tory leader. Heath was from a lower middle-class background and was the first of a trio of successive Conservative leaders who became Prime Minister (Thatcher and Major were the others) and who were from broadly the same social class and were all educated at Grammar Schools (state schools for those deemed to be academically able).

As part of my summer research/writing I’ve been reading the memoirs of Reginald Bevins – thanks to users of Lincolnshire Country Library, who’d had enough of it 20 years ago, so was on the market. You have to be over about 65 or a serious political or radio anorak to remember him – he was the broadcasting minister (PMG) when Radio Caroline first sailed onto the horizon, hence my interest.

There’s only one oblique – though positive – reference to pirate radio, but it’s a fascinating memoir, published in ’65 as it ‘appens. Bevins was of Irish descent and born into a two up-two down in Liverpool and loved the city. So much so that, after he entered politics after ’45 (he served as a Major in the War) and had moved down to Surrey for six months, he found he hated it there and moved back up to the ‘pool. He represented Toxteth – THAT’S TOXTETH: FOR THE CONSERVATIVES! He lost his seat in ’64 and railed against the Conservatives’ ‘magic circle’ for choosing an aristocrat (Alec Douglas-Home) when Macmillan quit, and opined they would never win again with an Eton-educated leader!

How wrong he turned out to be. People – certainly or current Prime Minister – often say ‘it’s not where you come from that matters, it’s where you’re going’. There’s obviously some truth in that. And it would be ridiculous to exclude people from high office because they had a posh background and went to a top private school. It’s perfectly possible to be as such and have an empathy – and even some knowledge – of how us ordinary folk think and feel, and are motivated. But I think the current batch of posh political leaders are a different from the previous generation. Heath’s predecessor-but-two, Harold Macmillan, had stark memories of the abject poverty, hopelessness and degradation of the 1930s, and before that, the courage, decency and character of the working-classes, having served alongside them in the trenches of World War I.

He had a feel for the middle classes, too: “People often talk about what the middle classes want, well what DO they want? Could you find out and write it own and we’ll see if we can give it to them”, was his instruction to an aide. His government delivered record numbers of council (social) housing, a boom in material goods and led the way to a big increase in participation higher education, following his commission of the Robbins report . “You’ve never had it so good” was a warning, actually, not a boast or a gloat, but a warning against high inflation ruining the economic boom.

It’s surely no coincidence that Heath’s triumph in the Tory leadership race half a century ago coincided with the ‘golden generation’; when social mobility was its highest. Former Labour minister Alan Milburn is the ‘mobility czar’, who pointed out on Sky News yesterday that the post-war baby-boomer generation, of which he is one, born in 1958 (I was born within a year of him) had the greatest chance of moving up the social and educational ladder. There has been nothing like it before or since. The decline in mobility is affecting every strata of life and every profession – certainly not just politics.

A new report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which Milburn chairs,  called Downward Mobility, Hoarding and the Glass Floor points out, with solid empirical evidence, the stark and grossly unfair divide we now have. I don’t think I can explain it better than this portion from The Sunday Times article – so here goes! (The pic at the top of this is -uncredited – at the top of the article.)

A privately educated boy with a low score in cognitive tests at age five is 18% more likely to be in the top fifth of earners at the age of 42 than a boy who got a high score but went to a comprehensive.

For girls the effect is stronger, with a 29% better chance for the low attainer who goes to private school. If a better-off boy who scores poorly at age five gains a degree, he is 111% more likely to earn a  high wage than his counterpart who got a high score at five but left school with no qualifications. The gap for girls is 156%.

It also helps to have a parent with a degree. For higher attainers, it boosts boys’ earning prospects by 12% and girls’ by 17%, while for low attainers, it boosts boys’ prospects by 69% and girls’ by 100%. There is even a correlation between the social background of a child’s grandfather and their career prospects.

Abigail McKnight, the author of the study, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, examined the cognitive test scores of a cohort of 17,000 born in 1970 and assessed how they had performed in their careers by the age of 42. Those in the top two-fifths were graded high attainers, while those in the bottom two were low attainers.

The figures show children from richer families perform a lot better at the age of five than those from lower socioeconomic groups. McKnight said that by the age of five, children from more privileged backgrounds had already benefited from better nurturing, which boosted their scores.

In short (and blunt!)  – if you’re a bit thick but from the right background you’ll still be alright, but if you’re bright but from a poor background you’ve little chance of breaking out and may even do worse than your parents (certainly in the prospect of owning your own home).

Of course, mobility implies that some will go down, and it’s hard to sell a true meritocracy to those better off, if they fear their child may end up – well, like those poor people! But whilst, if there are gainers there will always be losers – and we’d better face up to that – a society and economy based on individual merit must do better overall, for every class, than one based on the random chance of birth.

I firmly believe that one of the main reasons why the UK fell so badly behind in economic growth compared with its European and US competitors in the immediate post-World War II period was that higher management, and certainly ownership, was still largely based on the ‘old school tie’ and there were these terrible class boundaries between management and workers – a ‘them and us’ situation. Let’s just park the debate about union militancy and concede that there were some very poor people at the top of industry, and in other key decision-making posts, who were there because of their school tie and family connections. It was only when those started to be replaced by the – let’s call them – Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) class that things improved.

True, a new elite was then created by New Labour in the public sector and the broader political class; self-perpetuating, self-promoting and with a huge sense of entitlement. I think we can see the result of that in the terrible decisions and generally poor way that public services have operated, over the last 10-15 years in particular. We are, essentially, a more stupid society than we were at the height of the meritocracy. Worse, those who rule us now do not have the empathy with those who are doing less well, nor the moral compass to feel compelled to do something about it. They are dim, but often not very nice.

The road to well-paid employment and the professions – including the media – is increasingly through unpaid internships. Auctions are now held at summer parties for the top ones; yes, not only are you expected to work for nothing, you are now expected to pay for the privilege! Even if you can  afford to live on no income (often with those student debts lurking in the background like a bad smell) and don’t have the bank of mum and dad, a trust fund, etcetera, to support you, and you don’t have family/friends in London (where a lot of the top jobs are still located) where you can ‘crash’, most are excluded from those social networks to get in with a chance anyway. It’s a huge problem.

So, even if we accept the above arguments, what to do? Grand commissions and strategies are fine. But the really effective work goes on at the micro level. A huge part of this is – and I know I’ve blogged about this before – is the ‘c’ word: confidence. I’m not talking about the almost psychotic over-confidence of some wretch on a talent show who thinks they can sing like Pavarotti, when the noise they make is more like Pavolv’s Dog. (OK – clumsy attempt at humour; I was working on Caruso and Man Friday but that didn’t quite work either. Moving on…!). No, I’m talking about that social confidence and ease, which you usually acquire effortlessly if you’re in the middle classes. Not being intimidated or made defensive by authority-type figures, who seem to talk a different language. Just simple things like knowing how and when to shake hands, maintaining eye contact, speaking confidently. Stuff like the Barclay’s Bank (I know!) ‘Life Skills’ scheme has done, such as in this video.

It’s not enough to have a sheet of great exam results, if you go to pieces at the interview. Schools and colleges must do a lot more about this confidence-building. People need mentoring through the whole process, from adolescence and through those first few years (say 14-25). But with the cuts in FE (and more to come, I think we can safely assume) there seems little chance of any cash behind this. So, it’s up to other bodies and individuals to take this on. A national voluntary scheme of confidence-building.

The one bit of good news is that with the Internet and social media, a lot can be done with home study, Skype, and so on. But one-to-one tutoring is still vital. I’m up for it. Even if it wasn’t something that concerns me and about which I’ve become increasingly conscious through my work, and I think is simply the right thing to do, I hope I would still want to do it, if only for enlightened self-interest. You see, like most people, my state and most of my occupational pension is unfunded: I am paying for today’s pensioners – and, in turn, I am relying on the future workforce to pay for mine (if I should reach that great age!).

It’s best if people do the right thing because they’re nice, but even if they’re not, it’s dim not to do this.

PS: There’s a host of programmes about Edward Heath, his life and times and politics, including archive programmes, on the BBC Parliamentary Channel, available for the next month for those in the UK.

About richardrudin

I'm a Senior Lecturer in journalism by 'trade'. My background is mainly in broadcasting, although I initially trained (and qualified!) as a newspaper journalist. I'm interested in what shapes people's views/attitudes, nature/wildlife, politics, reading, music (fairly varied but particular fondness from pop/rock/soul genres circa 1964-84 ish) and broadcasting history, as well as new technologies.
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