Thursday, 28 August 2014

On Social Mobility and "Who Runs Britain"?

There's a report from Alan Milburn's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which suggests, amongst other things, companies should publish social mobility audits, revealing how many privately educated employees they have. This offensive, ridiculous, illiberal, and counterproductive proposal undermines the sweetcorn of truth which does exist in the report, from amongst the turd of Alan-Milburn's chippiness. This report fails to illuminate because it's asking the wrong questions.

Britain is not unique. We are middling in terms of inequality in the EU, but near the top in the extent to which your parents' income predicts ones own, which is being taken as a proxy for social mobility. The report then spends many pages talking about public schools and Oxbridge. Inequality isn't about the 7% at the top, but about the 15% at the bottom, trapped on welfare. Do something for them, and Britain's social mobility and inequality will look a lot better.

Oxford and Cambridge exist to select the very best students, and then give them the very best education. I would be surprised if Oxford and Cambridge universities (and the wider Russell Group, I attended Edinburgh) didn't provide the vast majority of leaders across a number of fields. It is after all what they are there to do. For Milburn to imagine becoming a FTSE 100 CEO is more about who you met than a consistent track record of success in exams, University and Business, is being disingenuous.

Likewise the 7% of people who go to public (mostly boarding) school have many advantages, so it would be surprising if they didn't also form a disproportionate part of the elite, not least in access to Oxford and Cambridge. This is true in all rich-world democracies. My parents weren't rich, but they made enormous sacrifices to send me and my Brother to a boarding school and they did so because the skills and experience I would receive would be worth their sacrifices. It's not just technical or academic, many of these are soft skills.

If you start boarding at 13, you effectively leave home and you're forced to mature faster. You have to go through puberty in the company of peers, with nowhere to hide. You learn to keep private, while being in public. You have to be a diplomat to survive. This generates a robustness of character, but also a certain tolerance. You often share a room, so you need to learn to negotiate with people you may not like much. There is little privacy, so learn how to keep yourself to yourself, even when around others. You talk more, to a wider range of people than people who go home to parents most evenings. Every meal is social. These skills carry through into later life, as the ability to network, be polite, diplomatic, charming and confident.

The additional pastoral care in a public school enables easier focus on extra-curricular activities such as sport or music, developing the whole person. The communal living is in particular an excellent preparation for a military life, so it is unsurprising that Public schoolboys still make up a disproportionate number of the Officer corps of the British army*.

At the top end of the Arts, Sport and Music - remember these are 'tournament' professions: the winner takes it all. And often, the also-rans get next to nothing. Is it surprising that people with rich parents feel more willing to take the risk of chasing a dream of a life on the stage? Is it surprising that schools with extensive and varied sporting facilities (Eton's boating lake was an Olympic venue, for example) produce lots of sportsmen? Is it surprising that schools with extensive music facilities, with access to them late into the evening, and very little else to do, often produces musicians? An aspiring musician in a boarding school will find it a lot easier to recruit bandmates than at a comprehensive where the bandmate might live 5 miles away, rather than down the corridor. Many of the co-incident advantages advantages shared with "middle-class" parents in the state sector: wealth, a home full of books, parents committed enough to put commit their income into education (private school, or after school tutoring), heath and wealth. Imagining this to be discriminatory behaviour by an old-school tie is just fanciful.

Instead of imagining why 7% of the population provide 62% of senior Army officers, ask why 88% of state educated pupils aren't better represented, and what can be done to encourage them to apply for Oxbridge, Sandhurst or RADA. Instead of assuming a discriminatory "old boy's club" ask whether there is anything the state sector can learn from the Public Schools in preparing pupils for excellence. This is the point of the academy and free schools programs: to open the state sector to new ideas, and free them from the dead hand of the Local Authority, (and by extension the dreadful teaching unions and their dogma). Many public schools are opening up academies, and offering scholarships to the brightest and best of their intake.

Instead of imagining talent is evenly distributed, ensure opportunity is. Labour closed many routes of access to an excellent education to poor students, not least the assisted places scheme, which supported access to the best education for bright children of low-income parents. Instead of assuming "elitism" to be a bad thing, revel in the fact that Trinity College, Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes than France, and some of those are tales of social mobility. Elitism works, if the groundwork is there. Why are public schoolboys so confident? What can be done to encourage able state pupils to believe they can make it, rather than succumb to the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Unfortunately, some of the state sector is failing, but Alan Milburn is asking the wrong questions, because he's already decided upon the answer.

*Though it is a marker of the increased professionalism and calibre of the Army these days that privately educated people are joining the ranks in ever greater numbers too.


Luke said...

I'm not sure about learning soft skills at boarding school - and what you mention could be counteracted by the odd matter of being surrounded by people you own age. Not so much disagreeing, just don't know.

I think that children of kibbutzniks have (or had) a tendency to do well in the Israeli army. They lived in "children's houses" from a young age. I just throw that in there.

Jackart said...

A boarding house is a bit like the agogi, with a touch of Lord of the Flies, and I imagine a Kibbutz has similar things going on. Public schoolboys make good soldiers because they're used to the compromises of communal living.

carol42 said...

The loss of Grammar and grant maintained schools ruined the chances of many poor but bright children. I came from a poor background but we had lots of books at home and my family had a great respect for education. That seems to be lacking now. I passed the eleven plus went to a good school and university. I doubt I would have made it now.

Luke said...

Or maybe (taking the Israeli army analogy) because they have a network of mates? I don't know (not least because my source on Israel died a few years ago).

Anonymous said...

The charitable status of fee paying schools is an egregious regressive subsidy of wealthy parents.

Why should the taxes paid by low income groups go towards supporting the tax deductions for the wealthy?

End private schools charitable status and make their users pay the true cost.

Tim Newman said...

Having been to a boarding school myself, I concur fully with your description of it.

Tim Newman said...

Having been to a boarding school myself, I concur fully with your description of it.

startledcod said...

In response to Anonymous's ridiculous comment.

If a parent (my wife and me for instance) pays £30k in school fees (per child) it is safe to assume that JUST TO PAY ONE CHILD'S fees they will have to have earned just under £41k and have paid around £10k in tax and NI. Therefore with twins (us) we have to trouser over £80k before we think about paying for anything else. The tax and NI more than pays for another child.

Also, in other news, as a country we recently passed the point where over 50% of tax payers received more in benefits than they pay in tax so low income groups are not 'supporting the tax deductions for the wealthy' they are, and have been for some time, suckling at the teat of the state's larceny.

Anonymous should remember that the top 10% of tax payers pay a quarter of tax paid and to get into the top 10% needs an income of, a mere, £50k. Yep, tube drivers are in the top 10%.

Extra homework needed anonymous.

startledcod said...

Very good blog post, as usual with most subjects (except cycling) you have mastered the facts.

Luke said...

Not sure what your point is. Genuinely. Apart from just thinking you and you alone are paying for the whole of Britain - clue, you're probably not.
(BTW, top 10% don't pay 25% tax, 'cos income tax is a pretty small percentage. Just think of all the tax on Buckfast and fags sold in Glasgow.)

Luke said...

Consider the possibility that when it comes to cycling you are a moron and Jackart is right. I'm not saying he is, just saying "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, consider it possible that you may be wrong." (Cromwell -genocidal, but a good line.)

lost_nurse said...

"as usual with most subjects (except cycling)"

Jackart is (IMO) wrong about many things, albeit entertainingly & informatively so. But on matters of cycling he is entirely correct.

lost_nurse (Oxford graduate, comprehensive educated).

Anonymous said...

I can just imagine the outcry from the wealthy at having to pay extra taxes to improve the chances of poor children in competition with their own offspring.

Jackart said...

Anon, first you must convince me that "the rich" paying extra tax helps poor children. Remember "the rich", let's use the 40% band as the cutoff, pay substantially all the income tax, and much of this is already used for redistributive purposes. The evidence is that redistribution, as currently practiced in the UK with our toxic welfare. Our welfare state appears more interested in farming the poor to the benefit of Unite members in the public bureaucracy than helping the poor better themselves. So. Thank you for your comment, Anon, Read this for my views on redistribution. You might be surprised.

Antony said...

To learn how to screw the powerless one must first be screwed by the powerful. What better place to learn?

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