Friday, 24 July 2009

Time to break through the glass ceiling.

Social mobility in modern Britain has ground to a halt with professions such as the law, medicine and journalism increasingly closed to anyone unlucky enough not to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. This was the sad conclusion drawn by a report chaired by former minister Alan Milburn published this week.

Children from poor backgrounds, it concluded, need more encouragement and better careers advice to help them realise their full potential. Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday morning Mr Milburn said of the government’s attempts to level the educational playing field over the past twelve years ‘We have raised the glass ceiling but I don’t think we’ve broken through it yet.’

Too many professions, he said, still operated a ‘closed shop’ mentality when it came to recruitment and what was needed was a ‘great wave of social mobility’ to match that of the 50’s and 60’s that would lift talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds into previously closed professions.

Critics of the report, unsurprisingly, cited the decline and fall of the grammar school system from the sixties onwards as the chief driver behind the stalling of social mobility. Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts spoke for the majority of people on this side of the argument when he said, also to the BBC, ‘if only you brought selection back into state schools and as a result had a decent education system’ people from poor families would be able to ‘power through’ the glass ceiling.

In response Alan Milburn said that selection had worked when there were 250,000 students studying at Britain’s universities, but was no longer applicable at a time when student numbers have swelled to 2.5million.

As ever in matters such as this both sides get some important things right whilst at the same time ignoring much that is important, but, from their respective standpoint, inconvenient.

Alan Milburn is right to point out the extent to which the professions are still stuffy, clannish and disposed towards looking backwards and that in a modern society they should be representative on the social mix of the country in the same way they should of the mix regarding race, gender and disability. This isn’t a radical departure, its just basic common sense.

Quentin Letts and the legions of people who support the reintroduction of grammar schools make a valid point, however much the idealists dislike it selection will always have a role to play in education. When we try to make everybody equal we inevitably end up rounding standards down and preventing talent from flourishing, a high price to pay for ideological purity.

Both sides of the argument seem to ignore though one major point, social mobility cannot simply be commanded from the centre, it depends to a large part on the behaviour of individuals, and, sad to say, too many people remain on the bottom rung of the ladder because they choose, consciously or not, to do so.

We are all, quite rightly, concerned by the chronic underachievement of many members of what used to be called the white working class, not least because it has been a major contributing factor in the rise and rise of the far right in some of Britain’s most disadvantaged areas. It can, I would guess, be attributed to one key factor, the near total collapse of aspiration amongst the same social group.

This can be seen in the unwillingness of white working class boys to engage with education for fear of seeming to have diminished their masculinity by doing so, and in the number of girls from similar backgrounds who would rather be ‘famous’, than clever. It is a shocking testament to the shrinking of horizons that has taken place over the past fifty years.

It wasn’t always so, within living memory education was prized highly by working class people, every mining village and mill town had its own institute and library filled with working people determined to better themselves through learning. It goes without saying that these people wanted their children to do even better than they had, and to their credit many of them did too.

This government and the next should take heed of Alan Milburn’s report, central government can do a great deal to improve careers advice and to make sure children leave school with the skills and qualifications to get good jobs, but it can’t act alone. Individuals must take more responsibility for their progress and that made by their children. Making room at the top is not enough on its own, people must be encouraged to make the sacrifices necessary to climb the ladder.

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