The UK’s social mobility shame

The gap between the rich and the poor in Britain has never been so dangerously divisive.

Pupils Make The Grade At Private Schools
The future prospects of British children are determined by their parents' class, found the OECD [Getty Images]

London, United Kingdom – The saying, it’s not what you know, but who you knowhas shamefully never been more true in Britain than today. This is because we now have to fight our way through a class-bound country that boasts the worst social mobility record in the western world. The chances of going from a packing line in a warehouse of a major corporation to signing off budgets as the CEO of that very corporation are sadly practically unheard of. Our future generations are being forced to use all of their navigation skills to unearth any other paths in a scrambled attempt to avoid joining the dark, depressing and desolate road that lies ahead.

Published this month, the all-party parliamentary group report,  7 Key Truths About Social Mobility, confirms the OECD’s findings that the UK has the lowest social mobility rate compared with any other “developed” country and warns that “it does not appear to be improving”. Key findings from the report include the discovery that, by the age of just three years old, the “class” of British children is already defined. Also, half of all British children’s future prospects will be determined by the circumstances of their parents.

Education as the engine of social mobility is, as expected, heavily emphasised. The research found that, despite higher education being the top determinant of later opportunities, there are now fewer opportunities for poorer children to access the very highest-achieving institutions. Many top employers will only recruit from top universities, but with just 19 per cent of the “lowest” socio-economic group – compared with 65 per cent of the “highest” socio-economic group – actually going to university, what chance do those born into poverty realistically have?

The latest international research findings, compiled for a two-day summit on social mobility, said much the same. The Sutton Trust found the education gap between disadvantaged and privileged children in the UK was greater than in virtually every other Western country.

What is class?

I’ve always been thoroughly disheartened and demoralised listening to people value themselves on the basis of what type of class they perceive themselves to be. The word “class” conjures up such Edwardian, patriarchal imagery of a hierarchy of exclusion and comparison, defined by a set of rules whose origins have been lost in the perceived evolution of social liberty.

There is a wholly wrong assumption that the rich “gentleman” who inherited his huge stately home is of a “higher class” than the young woman scuttling around ferociously, polishing his boots and pressing his shirts. “Class” is an outdated, redundant term and individuals should be defined by morals, judgements, values and behaviour – as, generally speaking, that’s how we judge the characteristics of a person, is it not?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines class as “a system of ordering society whereby people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status”. This completely contradicts the notion of social mobility – individuals moving freely through society entitled to and achieving “success” – whatever that means to you – regardless of what “class” they are perceived to be. 
My parents left school with basic qualifications that led to poorly paid jobs – further academic study was not an option or possibility that was available to them. My father worked 12-hour shifts in a factory, taking on another job in the evenings, while my mother worked weekends providing clerical support for our local hospital. Juggling three jobs between them paid for my sister and I to have extracurricular music lessons, where we were encouraged to apply for scholarships that gave us the opportunity to travel to London every weekend to study at music college.

After many years of tireless hard work and dedication, my parents eventually managed to buy a modest house in the catchment area of a good local secondary comprehensive renowned for its high levels of pastoral care and academic encouragement. As a result of my parents’ steps and sacrifices, my sister, myself and now my brother, have all graduated from university (albeit with thousands of pounds of debt). Crucially, however, our “class” is absolutely no different to that of our parents, and nor could it ever be defined as such.

It is incredibly divisive to define and evaluate an individual’s worth and status by misfortunes (or, in many cases) fortunes of privilege, education and patronage. Sloppy segregation greatly undermines the very principle of a meritocratic society, which is fundamental in allowing social mobility to truly flourish.

Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable county.

– Michael Gove

Should the elite be running Britain?

The UK is run by a group of men who attended independent schools where the annual fees – £31,000 ($48,500) at Eton College, which counts Prime Minister David Cameron among its alumni – are more than the average annual earnings of the British worker (£26,200/$40,850).

Sadly, our governing elite will never understand the true meaning of austerity, and their only association with the minimum wage will be reading it in a press release.

But this argument is absolutely not about begrudging those who have the wealth to afford a private education. This argument is about questioning whether people that have only been accustomed to a life of privilege and patronage are suitably qualified to run a country where this categorically is not the norm. Just seven per cent of the English population is privately educated. However, within that miniscule seven per cent, one can find 70 per cent of High Court judges, 54 per cent of FTSE-100 chief executives, 51 per cent of top medics, 32 per cent of MPs, and 24 per cent of university vice chancellors. There is no clearer illustration then that the stranglehold of “top jobs” in the UK are dominated by former “public schoolboys”.

Education Secretary Michael Gove described the stratification and segregation of our profoundly unequal society as “morally indefensible”. In his recent speech, A coalition for good – how we can all work together to make opportunity more equal, Gove said:

“It is remarkable how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable county. And for those of us who want to see greater economic efficiency it is a pointless squandering of our greatest asset – our children – to have so many from poorer backgrounds manifestly not achieving their potential.”

Inspiring words indeed from the Right Honourable Michael Gove, MP and Secretary of State for Education, himself educated at the independent Robert Gordon’s College (to which he reportedly won a scholarship) and Oxford University.

I do wonder whether we will ever get to a point where our governing elite actually mean and act on what they say? In their joint foreword to the Coalition Agreement, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Caldicott and Westminster independent schools, Cambridge University) pledged “we both want a Britain where social mobility is unlocked; where everyone, regardless of background, has the chance to rise as high as their talents and ambition allow them”.

But this isn’t happening, as the sad, stark reality is in Britain today, we have men in power who are totally unrepresentative of the electorate and simply don’t get what’s happening in the real world. People are struggling to survive in a country that has slid back into a recession, unable to do anything but watch nervously from the sidelines to see if the eurozone implodes.

Meanwhile, those at the top couldn’t be making life any harder for those at the bottom by ruthlessly capping benefits, savagely reforming the Disability Living Allowance, cutting and culling vital support services, privatising the NHS, abolishing the Education Maintenance Allowance and tripling university fees to £9,000 ($14,033) a year. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats bitterly betrayed every student in Britain when they broke their pre-election promise that they would abolish tuition fees. Britain, of course, already had the worst Western social mobility record with tuition fees of “just” £3,000 ($4,678) a year. 

Clegg’s hypocrisy in his recent speech on driving social mobility is utterly staggering. He declared: “Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society” – but unsurprisingly didn’t once mention his decision to go back on his word and appease and accommodate the Conservatives by tripling tuition fees. He also conveniently omitted to mention that our future generation is totally petrified by the huge amount of debt they will be lumbered with after leaving university. This is illustrated by him ignoring and choosing not to report that the number of UK applications to universities has dropped by 8.7 per cent , compared with last year, according to the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS). 

However, the argument that increased university places will wholeheartedly solve the problems of a stagnant society is a facile solution for so complex a problem. That is only a tiny proportion of attempting to change a Britain where the socio-economic gap between the highest and lowest paid has accelerated more sharply than in any other high-income country. That gap shows no sign of closing, with the demise of manufacturing and the scarcity of skilled manual jobs and apprenticeships – forcing those who don’t want to go to university to join the 1.02 million young people aged 16-24 who are unemployed in Britain today.

“Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society.”

– Deputy PM Nick Clegg

As youth unemployment hits the highest level for 16 years, the very politicians that lambast and lecture us about the “fundamental necessity” of a truly mobile society in Britain are the very politicians who introduced a workfare scheme, where people who are unemployed must labour for free or face losing their benefits. There’s also, unsurprisingly, no mention in any politician’s speech that if a truly mobile society is to function properly there must be movement downwards as well as upwards. After all, who will sweep our streets and empty our bins, but no-one really wants to address or acknowledge that, do they?

And then there is capitalism – the poison of a dangerous and divisive society, responsible for preventing everyone in Britain from getting a fair shot. A higher tax rate, a regulated market, closing the gap between the rich and the poor, free public health care, an education system based on equality and a modern welfare system supporting those who need the most. All ideologies that would go one step better than the so called concept of “social mobility” and which would begin to transform Britain into a country of genuine social equality.

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.