John Major has claimed to be “truly shocked” by the continuing dominance of the privately educated elite in British public life. Even Eton-educated David Cameron with his “posh boy” Cabinet has declared that the Government should do more to promote social mobility, so that “no matter where you come from, what god you worship, the colour of your skin, what community you belong to, you can get to the top”. Oh, for heaven’s sake, what do they think private schools are for?
Private schools provide their students with advantages not available through the state education system; this is why parents who can afford it send their children there. Even parents who support state education sometimes buy private education for their own children, not because they are amoral hypocrites, but because we live in an unequal society, and they know that education and life success are linked. Every parent wants the best for their children, and it’s no good trying to make them feel bad about that.
But social mobility is not about the society we live in now; it is about the future. It is about how life success, or lack of it, is passed down through the generations. As a society, we want people to be successful; we encourage wealth creation, and we understand that people are going to want to pass on what they’ve acquired to their children. At the same time, we want a fair society where everyone starts out with an equal chance. Sadly, these two aims are just not compatible.
Inheritance tax and universal education are two of the ways societies have developed of mediating this essential incompatibility. Of course, inheritance tax is notoriously avoidable for those with clever accountants, and the universal education system we have at present is just not good enough to guarantee you a place at the top. As Alan Milburn, the Government’s adviser on social mobility, said: “One-third of MPs, half of senior doctors and over two-thirds of High Court judges all hail from the private schools that educate just 7 per cent of our country’s children. The data is so stark, the story so consistent, that it has all the hallmarks of social engineering.”
And here Britain scores badly compared with other developed countries. A government-commissioned Economic and Social Research Council report published in 2012 said: “The strong correlation between parental education and children’s achievement in the UK is very high by international standards. Education mobility for the current generation of children has not changed for the least educated households.” Moreover, this gap widens throughout the school years. In parallel with this, the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest in Britain has widened consistently since the 1970s. The figures are eye-watering. According to the OECD, the share of the top 1 per cent of income earners doubled from 7.1 per cent in 1970 to 14.3 per cent in 2005.
Maybe this did not matter so much at a time when there were secure jobs with livable wages for unskilled workers, a thriving community life in working-class communities, and there was widespread social provision for housing, education and recreation, so that people could live with dignity on a manual worker’s wage. But with the decline of industry and the rise of the financial sector, not only has income inequality widened, but those jobs that are left are badly paid, insecure.
Social mobility, the dream that anyone can make it to the top, can also be a fig leaf for a society where life at the bottom has got horribly uncomfortable. For while not everyone can be a lawyer or a banker, people on a modest incomes, or people who have been unlucky in some way, should at least be able to bring up their families decently, and hope that their children will have a better life than they had.
John Major, Margaret Thatcher and I all have something in common. We were all grammar school kids, beneficiaries of a state education system that provided an elite education for a small number of children from poorer backgrounds. There are those who argue that bringing back grammar schools restores a channel of social mobility to some of the less well-off, and there are those who argue that this is divisive, and that comprehensive schools should be good enough for all. Although I have a sentimental attachment to grammar schools, I’m not sure they promote social mobility, since the ones that exist now mainly benefit children who are already middle class. My own daughter went to a comprehensive school, and still got into Cambridge. And this is the other important ingredient in social mobility that is highlighted in the ESCR report: parental education.
My parents arrived in this country as refugees from war-torn Europe with nothing more than they could carry in two suitcases. But they also had university degrees, and an absolute belief in the value of education. Although we lived in a two-up two-down terraced house without an indoor bathroom or toilet, they scraped enough money together to send me to a private primary school. I don’t know whether that’s what pushed me on. I think it was more their prodding, coaxing and storytelling. Of course it’s too easy to blame the parents of children who fail at school for lacking aspiration or failing to read to them. Much harder to know how to change things; for parenting style, along with wealth and social position, is something we inherit from our own parents.
I hope something of my parents’ ambition for me has been passed down through the generations. Whenever I Skype my two-year-old granddaughter, I am delighted to see that she always seems to have a book with her – though sometimes it is upside down.
Marina Lewycka’s latest novel, ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’, is published by Penguin
Howard Jacobson returns next week