If equal opportunity is like apple pie, then social mobility is like custard. Everyone is in favour of them but everyone disagrees about the best way to make them. There is much in yesterday's cross-party report chaired by Alan Milburn with which most people will agree. But that concerns its analysis of the problem. Where it is weakest is in the solutions it offers.
Britain is a more unequal society today than when New Labour came to office in 1997. Perhaps more so. As many as 75 per cent of our judges were educated in private schools. Other high-status jobs such as senior civil servants, doctors, lawyers, accountants and journalists are not far behind. The ability for young people to do better than their parents has been reduced. What is needed is "a second great wave of social mobility" like that of the Fifties and Sixties.
Those dates hint at the paradox at the heart of the problem. That post-war era was when grammar schools were the main instrument of upward social mobility. Through them, hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged youngsters took the escalator out of disadvantage. In that era Britain had a larger proportion of university students from working-class backgrounds than anywhere else in Europe. But the abolition of grammar schools put paid to that.
Grammar schools were wonderful for the 25 per cent of children who won places. But the other 75 per cent were branded failures and doomed to a second-rate education. The introduction of comprehensive schools was supposed to end that, by levelling all schools up to the standard of the grammars. Success, however, has been mixed because the bright working-class kids who previously would have been removed from the socially disruptive environment created by an awkward minority of their peers have not flourished.
There has been levelling down as well as levelling up, so the state sector still turns out vast numbers lacking the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Politically it would now be difficult for either of the main political parties to bring back a grammar-secondary school divide, but that should not stop us trying to develop an educational framework that challenges the ablest and pushes the less able to achieve their best.
Some of Mr Milburn's 80 or so proposals are appealing, such as mechanisms to force universities to take more account of the social background of prospective students; all the evidence is that state school students get as good or better degrees than pupils from private schools who enter with A-levels two grades higher. But other suggestions seem less well-thought out; his plan to ban unpaid internships might be superficially appealing but would block many people from acquiring access to experience in jobs where they may later excel. No-fee degrees for students living at home might introduce two classes of university; and lowering the entry standards required for working class children could emphasise class differences rather than reduce them.
Equal opportunity must mean more than social mobility. It means providing the best education possible right across the ability range. The Government's new 14-19 diploma is a good step in that direction for those who need a more vocational education. But our schools must not be allowed to fail bright children by not pushing them as hard as the grammar and independent sectors. Measures are needed to tackle the poor discipline and low expectations in many comprehensives. Some may dismiss such issues as intractable, but Mr Milburn has made a start. It is up to the rest of us to push it forward.Reuse content