Steve Richards: It takes bravery to break class barriers

Despite proclamations of courage, this Government is not famous for boldness
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The Independent Online

Britain is bottom of the social mobility league, but must be at the top of the league for inquiries into the issue. Publications appear on a near daily basis. Whatever their distinctive research, most reach the same predictably depressing conclusion. If you come from a relatively well-off background you will get the best qualifications and end up in a better paid job. If you come from a poorer background you can forget about a primrose path to affluence.

The link between education and background was highlighted in an independent report published yesterday by the Liberal Democrats. The former Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, makes a partial return to the political fray looking at ways to break the link. Among the whirlwind of findings that demonstrate the nature of the challenge, here is one from an inquiry by the London School of Economics: "While the proportion of people from the poorest families obtaining a degree has increased from 6 to 9 per cent, the graduation rates for the richest have risen from 20 to 47 per cent."

The dry figures chime with the more emotive findings of MPs who represent the poorer constituencies. I recall a conversation with David Miliband a few months after he had been selected as the Labour candidate for South Shields. Above everything else he was struck by the persistent, almost scientific evidence that those who left school at 16 in his constituency were the poorest and least mobile. If any of the kids could be persuaded to stay on they had a better chance.

What is superficially odd about social mobility is that compared with a range of other issues the solutions seem relatively straightforward. The ubiquitous reports, including the Government's latest research, suggest that good teaching in more deprived areas makes a big difference. There are also signs that schemes such as Sure Start, early year children centres and additional classroom assistants have an impact. But these are relatively small changes in a country that is still class ridden in its attitudes towards education. On one hand there is Sure Start. On the other there is the, still-thriving, Bullingdon Club at Oxford. It is difficult to imagine these worlds meeting. In between are the lofty public schools, which are the main recruiting grounds for the grander universities.

In parts of the country, under the misleading guise of "choice", schools choose parents rather than the other way around. If affluent parents fail to get the school of their "choice" they can move home or pretend to become a devout church-goer. Schooling in Britain is the equivalent of navigating a deranged obstacle course.

How to ensure that more kids get around it without falling out before the end of the race? There must be more cash invested in Sure Start schemes rather than less. The best teachers must be attracted to the poorer areas. They should be on David Beckham-style salaries. There must be closer links between all universities, and especially the supposedly top ones, with state schools in poorer areas. Kids must remain in some form of education up to the age of 18 as they do in equivalent countries. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is right to compel 16-18 year olds to either stay on at school or take some form of vocational qualification.

But the angry reaction to Balls' proposal, an unease reflected in parts of his own party, demonstrates why Britain is so far behind. Balls is accused of telling people what to do rather than allowing them to decide for themselves. Yet without a tiny element of compulsion – arguably Balls is not being draconian enough – quite a lot of those from poorer backgrounds will slip through the net only to regret their social immobility at a later age when it is too late to act. In northern Europe, where there is more social mobility, there are not the same hang-ups about the Government regulation designed to give the poor some opportunities. I know I wish I had been compelled to do certain things as a teenager. There are fewer retrospective "if only" moments, and more chances of potential fulfiled when there is some external direction.

Selective secondary education is part of the problem and is not a way of increasing social mobility. I live in a borough where selection thrives. Parents feel no sense of empowering choice whatsoever. Open evenings at some state schools have to be heavily policed such is the middle-class hysteria as they battle to be "chosen". The rest are dumped elsewhere. Selection would benefit a lucky few from poorer backgrounds, but the rest would be even more doomed than they are now.

As far as the Government is concerned the current economic crisis both hinders and helps it make the case. From an ideological perspective ministers are more self-confident than they have been since Labour came to power in 1997. At a strategy meeting attended by several key ministers last week they agreed that their proposals for social mobility gave them another opportunity to put the case for more active government compared with the smaller state espoused more explicitly these days by David Cameron. Until recently they would not have even contemplated projecting one of their famous dividing lines on such a basis.

But this Government is not famous for its boldness, in spite of the many sweaty proclamations of courage that have punctuated its cautious years in power. Progress demands considerable political will, taking on teaching unions, challenging the complacent orthodoxies of universities who rely more on reputation than performance, breaking up the cosy links between private schools, universities and prestigious jobs. In a recession there may be no appetite to take risks elsewhere. Even if there is, there probably will not be enough cash. The Government's plans are being unveiled today at a time when public spending is facing an eye-watering tightening of the belts.

I have no doubt that senior ministers regard social mobility as a policy area where their convictions and electoral expediency march at last in the same direction. Yet I fear there will be a need for inquiries into Britain's stubborn immobility for years to come.