It’s parental attitudes that will help overcome the problem of lacking social mobility

I have a sentimental attachment to grammar schools. But today’s mainly benefit the middle class

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker