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Perhaps public schools are the answer to Britain's social immobility

They will never be abolished, so why not put them to work for the national good?

Dj Taylor
Sunday 16 November 2014 01:00 GMT
Sticky subject: Why should the social and economic benefits of being a Roedean girl be denied children from poorer homes?
Sticky subject: Why should the social and economic benefits of being a Roedean girl be denied children from poorer homes? (Alamy)

One of Evelyn Waugh's biographers once remarked his subject's relish of the black-and-white social categorisation. In a world characterised by nuance and fine distinctions, he really did believe in such taxonomic entities as "nobleman of great estates" and "poor scholar".

No doubt it was this habit that brought about his own transition from the status of middle-class publisher's son to a highly successful author who from the moment of his first literary triumphs behaved like a duke, or, as his friend Anthony Powell once delicately put it, how he imagined a duke to behave.

Looking to explain the relatively straightforward history of my own family over the past century or so in Wavian terms, I invariably end up with two words: upwardly mobile. No doubt about it, we are meritocrats, all of us, pitched on an ascending course since the 1930s and showing no signs of slowing down: from electricity meter-reader to creative type in three generations. And what symbolic event began this transformation? Again, no question about it. Family Taylor's rise dates to the day in 1932 when my father began his climb from the municipal estate by winning a council scholarship to the local private school.

If the run-up to general elections always throws up two or three key issues which the electorate is invited to consider, generally related to the nation's economic failings, then these discussions are generally accompanied by a sneaking awareness of longer-term problems where no immediate solution applies but which governments of the future are going to have to confront. One of the forthcoming election's background debates, spilling forth every so often to add spice to the endless disputations about jobs and migrants and fossil fuels, looks as if will be about social mobility.

The Government, though composed of many people whose families have been socially immobile for generations, is, needless to say, firmly in favour of it. So is Her Majesty's Opposition, for it would be a very brave politician who maintained that he or she doubted the necessity for people to prosper. And yet the whole process whereby citizens and their families "better themselves", to use the language of the Victorian reformers, has been called sharply into question, not only by the discovery that the boom in professional-cum-managerial jobs is stalling just as the number of university graduates avid to snap them up continues to increase but by the conclusions of long-term academic research.

Historians of social mobility, tracking its origins to the mid-19th century when a burgeoning middle class swept all – or nearly all – before it, usually date its high point to the post-war years, the era when, to borrow the title of John Braine's famous novel, there was "room at the top" and precisely the time at which my father began his climb up the hierarchies of the Norwich Union Insurance Society. But according to the distinguished sociologist John Goldthorpe there is a distinction between absolute and relative mobility. And so, even in the post-war boom, while the number of individuals making the transition from one class to the other increased, the relative chances of others from their social class being able to do this diminished from one year to the next.

By chance, all of this – "room at the top", the rise of the grammar school pupils and the Goldthorpe caveat – formed the subject of last week's George Orwell memorial lecture, delivered by the social historian David Kynaston. Asking the question "Whatever happened to social mobility?", Kynaston began by pointing out some of the profound disadvantages involved in quitting one class for another, in particular the traumas suffered by the old-style scholarship boy who, like my father, marched proudly through the private-school gate to be patronised and mocked by some of the young gentlemen within. Then again, who wanted a world of brainy upward-risers ordering the rest of us around by virtue of their cleverness?

There was also the fact, Kynaston argued, that politicians' keenness on the phenomenon was a handy disguise for their reluctance to do anything about underlying inequalities which the unequal had no real means of addressing. But if we could all agree that social mobility was, on balance, a good thing, what was impeding its forward march, over and above the lack of employment for all those 18-year-olds hoodwinked into further education by the promise that a degree gets you a decent job? The answer was private schooling which, according to the Kynaston thesis, perpetuates the upper-middle-class stranglehold on the professions, commerce and finance and will continue to perpetuate it until it is dismantled.

And so my father, who, having made it through the gates of poshboys' academy then determined to send his own sons there, turned out to be part of the problem, not the solution. And yet there is a rather revealing sub-text to the Kynaston thesis. For there was a time in the 1960s when such indicators of the upper-class armlock on our institutions as the disproportionately large number of private-school children at Oxford and Cambridge seemed to be wavering. The threat came from the state, from grammar-school pupils, many of them deliberately targeted by levelling Oxbridge dons (John Carey's recent memoir is notably candid about this) and it began to recede only when the Labour administration of 1964-1970, later abetted by the incoming Tory education secretary Margaret Thatcher, started to phase out selective state education.

Peter Hitchens wondered why Britain would destroy the success of public schools
Peter Hitchens wondered why Britain would destroy the success of public schools (PA)

None of the foregoing is an argument in favour of grammar schools, which were, and are, a horribly crude, not to say divisive, method of cutting the educational pack. Nonetheless, it was possible to feel a certain amount of sympathy with one of Kynaston's questioners – revealed to be the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens – when he wondered why it had been necessary to destroy one of the few parts of the 20th-century state educational process that seemed to have succeeded on its own terms – that is, by giving a proper education to the children in its care. I could make the same point about the direct grant schools (the status of my father's school by the time I got there) which encouraged social integration and upward mobility, allowed middle-class Lord Fauntleroys such as myself to be educated alongside the sons of market traders, and were abolished by a Labour government for ideological reasons which I have never been able to fathom.

As for the breezeblock apparently laid across the path of social mobility by the 21st-century private schools, there is no prospect of its being removed by legislation. However wildly certain egalitarian voices on the left may shriek, the liberty to pay for your children to be educated in the style you want them to be is surely a basic right. Moreover, what would getting rid of the public schools achieve other than the indulgence of a little class-based spite, while further encouraging middle-class colonisation of "good" comprehensives while the others fester and rot? Here, after all, is an extraordinary national resource whose only drawback is that so few children benefit from it. A reforming education secretary – possibly not the current incumbent – might start by taking, say, 20,000 of the country's brightest 11-year-olds from poor homes and compelling the private sector to educate them on pain of loss of charitable status. One had an idea that Michael Gove's fine mind was already moving a certain distance in this direction before he was handed his hat. How much this particular Labour-supporting parent regrets his passing.

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