Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Increasing Social Mobility - the answer is staring us all in the face

I have sat through the news this morning in utter disbelief. Today the Labour Government task force on Social Mobility published it's report conclusions. Theories abounded about rich people buying extra opportunity through private education, about the professions being prejudiced against working class applicants and about a lack of encouragement and lack of ambition amongst many working class children, who undeniably face a reduced chance of reaching the upper echelons of society than their parents or their grand-parents did.

For an hour or more on the Today programme various well meaning people agonised over the dismal failure of social mobility in recent years, yet not one of the mentioned main the reason why this has happened.

After three 'golden decades' of social mobility after the war from about the late 1980's the ability of people born on or near the bottom to rise to the top has been reducing sharply in a fairly continuous trend.

Now what could have happened during the 1970's to so reduce the next generations chances of going from the bottom to the top I wonder? Oh yes, we closed all the Grammar Schools.

The biggest cause of a reduction in life chances for working class people is of course the closure of Grammar Schools. It's obvious - supported by all the evidence, and everyone knows it to be true; and yet neither the Labour members of the committee mention it, nor do the Conservatives advocate restoration.


Well the problem was never with Grammar Schools, it was with the rest.

Questions have always existed over the quality of general education in Britain and the fear has always been there that we just don't produce enough high quality teachers. Grammar Schools undeniably tended to cream off the best teachers leaving many schools dangerously weak.

The decision to call all the other schools by the damning term 'secondary modern' didn't help much by reinforcing the impression that these schools were second-class, as indeed too many of them were. Any system that meant that three quarters of children 'failed' was bound to run into problems in a democratic country sooner or later, and so it proved.

So with the kind of perverse logic that permeates Government the solution was not to improve teaching standards, or to incentivize good teachers to take up posts in non Grammar schools, or to widen the scope of school selection to include sporting or artistic ability but to close the Grammars and average everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

And here we are thirty years later, scratching our heads and wondering why social mobility is back to pre-war levels.

Some form of selective schooling is the only answer - streaming has been tried and was the promise of Comprehensives, it failed because what makes a really successful school is a culture of excellence and achievement; and by definition you can't get that in every school.

What would help would be to have not just excellence in academic subjects. In the modern world artistic or sporting ability may well turn out to be of equal or greater value than an brilliant academic mind and these talents need to be selected out, too. I'd make selective 'county schools' available to every child with talent - sporting schools selecting on agility and fitness, artistic schools selecting on artistic aptitude and technical colleges selecting pupils demonstrating technical ability, as well as grammar schools.

But in any event we have to face the fact that some would not get into a specialist school. The facts of life cannot be changed, we are not all born equal. The function of education should not be to simulate that we are; but rather to allow people to maximise the ability nature provided them with and help everyone to have an equal opportunity to go for whatever opportunity exists. Unfortunately the current education system in many cases does the opposite - simulating equality by depriving any opportunity at all.

What is fascinating about this debate is that it goes to the heart of the ideological debate in British society today. Do we want to forever be a society that obsesses about those at the bottom - even if they made their own way there? A country that always mitigates failure - even by those who make no effort? A nation that hands out opportunities on a buggins turn basis and in doing so eradicate any last vestiges of personal ambition? A place that 'simulates' equality by banning success, dragging everyone down to the level of the lowest achiever?

And if we carry on down this path who loses out the most? Is it the rich or the well connected? Is it the feckless and lazy? No, its the people in the middle who don't want to stay there, the aspiring and the hard working; the people who in doing well create the wealth in which we all share eventually.

Oh the irony of it all. Britain's declining 'social mobility' (in other words the block on poor people attaining high achievement) - is a direct result of social engineering by those who claim to have the interests of the poor at heart.

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