Stories + Views
Some common sense on social mobility……
It would be interesting if it were not so depressing: the more unequal our society becomes, the more desperate the situation of large numbers of citizens, the more we hear about that illusory concept: social mobility. Almost every week, a prominent mainstream journalist sings the praises of the grammar schools – Mary Ann Sieghart of the Times was the most recent – and urging the government to return us, in essence, to the meritocratic arrangements of the 1944 Act.
And Nick Clegg keeps on making angry sounding noises about restricted access of the poor to Oxbridge colleges, causing one Oxford don to call him a communist! The whole spectacle is ludicruous, and the concentration on Oxbridge itself a perfect example of how narrow and elite the entire debate has become; for the Coalition front bench, at least, it is clear that no other universities have any true value.
So it is refreshing to read two liberal journalists – Suzanne Moore and Zoe Williams – in today’s Guardian question the terms of the entire debate. Moore makes the important point that she and many of her friends became socially mobile thanks not to a private school or a ‘bleedin’ grammar’ but I presume, to a comprehensive education and then further education – a sector that is now being slashed. The fact that many talented and significant figures, like Moore, clearly benefitted from, and prospered as a result of, a non selective education is rarely trumpeted by politicians of any party.
Williams makes the point that the privileged advocate social mobility until the point that the privileged might lose out; after all you can’t increase the numbers of poor children to a top university without restricting the numbers of wealthier children who gain entrance at the same time.
Just as importantly, none of this is going to make fundamental change without tackling the broader problem of income inequality. As Williams says,’Moreover, even if social mobility was achieved, what is so great about a society in which the outliers of each class can move relatively freely up and down the hierarchy? What’s so great about being able to escape the gutter, when the bulk of people are still in it?’
Without that broader project of income and educational equality, social mobility simply becomes a matter of lucky escape from the growing desperation of – and prescribed educational mediocrity – for the masses. Not a worthy project, on either count.