Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Major On Mobility

Sometimes the Major can be quite blunt:

"I'm sick to death of all this claptrap on the BBC about so-called social mobility.

I mean, look at you, Tyler. You're pretty well from the absolute bottom of the heap. You've never played polo, you've never been on the grouse moor, you don't hunt. What's more, you have no social polish whatsoever - in fact, when you're at home, I'll bet you still eat peas off your knife. Yet, despite all that, I'm quite prepared to treat you as an equal... well, virtually an equal, anyway. So what's the problem?"

Tyler winced. "Well, Major, the problem is that people like me are a dying breed. I may have grown up on a council estate and risen through the social ranks to my virtually equal status with you, but these days it's much more difficult. According to today's report from the Right Honourable Alan Milburn MP - who incidentally grew up on a council estate and rose through the ranks to become a cabinet minister - kids on today's council estates have absolutely no chance of moving up to become your nextdoor neighbour."

"You know why!" the Major spluttered, fortifying himself from the silver regimental hipflask that had been presented to his great grandfather after the relief of Montmorency. "Those socialists abolished the grammar schools - that's why! I mean, for the village children, those grammars were a godsend! Once they'd gone, the ladder was kicked away!"

Tyler sighed. "Yes, Major, you might well say that. But as it happens, I've read the Milburn Report, and it doesn't mention the abolition of the grammar schools once. Not once. So it can't possibly be that."


Milburn's 167 page report repeats some very familiar themes. Social mobility in Britain seems to have fallen over the last few decades, and the top jobs seem increasingly to go to the children of parents who are already in the top jobs. Which is much less the case overseas.

The first thing to note is that Milburn directly contradicts the previous official line, which said that social mobility is getting better under Labour (eg see this blog). They now admit it's getting worse.

Second, as per, the evidence for any sweeping conclusion is incredibly flimsy. As we've blogged before, defining social mobility in terms of whether children move "up" from the manual occupations of their parents to the non-manual occupations of today, totally fails to recognise structural change in the economy. In the 40 years following WW2, there was a huge shift from manufacturing employment (largely manual) to service employment (much of it defined as "managerial and professional"... a plumber or a gas fitter is not professional?). So unsurprisingly, there was a one-off surge in "social mobility".

Third, people have been banging on about social immobility as long as Tyler can remember. Leafing through lefty journo Anthony Sampson's New Anatomy of Britain (1971), Tyler finds Sampson bemoaning the fact that 81% of Britain's judges went to public schools. And four decades later, Milburn makes exactly the same point... only now the percentage has fallen to 70%.

I dunno... what are we to make of it?

Is it surprising that kids who went to our customer-driven independent schools do so much better on average than kids who went through our dumbed-down, target driven, state education factories?

Is it surprising that the children of economically successful parents do so much better on average than children of less economically successful parents?

Er, no.

But there is one thing about which I am 100% certain.

Gove really, REALLY, MUST push through his plans for school vouchers and independent schools.

Even with all our fiscal problems, Gove's school reform is by far the most important legacy Cameron's government could leave to future generations.

It is something that could rewrite our history.

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