Your new book is in part an examination of competitive parenting. Haven’t parents always competed with each other via their children?
It is not really an examination of competitive parenting; it’s an examination of social relationships between a group of mothers in a primary school, during which there are plenty of observations of competitive parenting – naturally. It’s very hard to say how that has changed over generations, though. Many parents look pretty bonkers to the distant observer; you can only really assess the reality from the inside. But I would say, more in explanation than defence, that we live now in a much more competitive culture than we used to. We are brought up to be more competitive in the workplace, as well as with our appearance, our lifestyles, our popularity, our fitness and all sorts of other stuff where once we might have been allowed to slack off a bit. So, although it may be unhealthy, it is hardly surprising to see those values applied to parenting as well.
Social mobility tsar James Caan said this week that parents should not help their sons and daughters into jobs. Is that realistic?
No, as James Caan himself must surely realise after the week he has had. It has been almost amusing. First, we have Nick Clegg – the living embodiment of special privilege and entitlement, who seems to have strolled through plenty of open doors himself – appointing James Caan to tell the rest of us, on his behalf, that we should be closing all doors to our own children. And then we find out that his own appointee has used his own position to open all available doors to his own kids. Almost amusing, but actually quite infuriating.
Is there a sense in which helping your children as they embark on their careers is holding them back?
There may be, but you need nerves of steel to take the opposite approach. These children work much harder than we ever did when we were at school to get the brilliant results – annually dismissed as “grade inflation” – which they require to get to the university of their choice which will cost them a fortune, at the end of which they are met by the terror of long-term unemployment. They seem to face enough obstacles without their own parents chucking in banana skins.
Are the people getting into the best universities and into the best jobs coming from too narrow a background?
One look at our political class and it’s quite clear that something has gone badly wrong somewhere. It is quite extraordinary the way that government is dominated today by this gang of Old Etonians, in a manner that we haven’t witnessed for decades. And, of course, it makes it very hard for them to address the nationwide problem of stagnant social mobility. How can they even begin to talk to us about it when they are so remarkably unimaginative with their own appointments?
Nick Clegg is a fierce critic of unpaid internships. Do you share his concern?
He’s right on this one. We’ve gone from trainee schemes to slave labour in the space of a decade. In the summer, there are interns keeping offices going and they are not even being given their travel expenses. And, of course, behind every unpaid intern is a family that is paying to keep them going. It is grossly unfair and should be made illegal, as should calling all interns “Workie” and not even bothering to learn their names. It happens.
Michael Gove says he is seeking more academic rigour with his I-levels. Is this the way to improve educational standards?
For the past month, as every year, students all over the country have been taking different papers at different times to be marked by different boards according to different scales, in order to end up with the same qualifications in the same subjects at the end of it. That simply can’t be right and it’s time we had one national exam board. Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for Latin and George Eliot and academic rigour will suit one sector of students but by no means all. So the worry is that with introducing I-levels, he will have to introduce a few other levels, too, and then everyone will be taking a different set of initials and the whole thing will be a muddle – yet again. Although our exam system is imperfect, the idea of change is always alarming. It takes a couple of years to get things right, and who wants to be the one – or the parent of the one – sitting in the exam hall when the music stops? Getting rid of coursework is a sound idea, though. That really is where the rot starts: parents sitting at home writing A-grade essays while the candidates are glued to Towie.
How much difference can be made by Maria Miller’s drive to increase women’s presence in business?
Most government drives seem end up as U-turns, so we shall have to see where this one goes. Reading through this report, it’s not easy to tell whether anyone really knows if women are staying away from business because they feel rejected, or because they are rejecting the idea of working in business themselves. One thing that does need to change, though, is employers’ disinclination to take on older women. If we are all to be stuck working until we are 70, then we have to open our minds to the idea of career changes much later in life. Women over 50 have so much to offer, and it’s time the workplace woke up to the fact.
Gill Hornby’s novel ‘The Hive’ is published by Little, Brown