Friday, June 06, 2008

How the Left Stifles Social Mobility

Almost everyone agrees that social mobility is a good thing. People of talent must be able to exercise their gifts and not be held back by stigma or social convention. In practice, this means that many intelligent people born to working class families should have the opportunity to forge what, for what of a better term, we could call middle class careers. Upwards social mobility is, at heart, individuals moving from the working classes to the middle classes.

Not long ago, everyone seemed to accept this. Many working class families were delighted when their children, including some close friends of mine, joined accountancy firms or became investment bankers. Now, we are told that this mobility has become less common under Labour than it was under the Conservatives. Why?

John Harris, a member of the suicidal left (so called because they think the best way to combat the rise of the Conservative Party is to sidle up closer to Marx) thinks it is all a conspiracy. Oxford and Cambridge deny places to poor kids due to networks of privilege and patronage. That’s rubbish, of course. On the contrary, I think the left much shoulder much of the blame.

Reading the Guardian, there seems to be nothing the left likes more than denigrating the middle classes. They are blamed for taking up the best school places, clogging up the health service and causing pollution with their people carriers. In short, the middle class are to be despised and feared in equal measure. But if, as it must be, upwards mobility is to become a member of the middle classes, it is hardly surprising that fewer working people have the aspirations to join them. Bettering yourself becomes akin to switching sides to the enemy.

The way to encourage aspiration is to tell young people that ambition, wealth and prestige are good things that they should want for themselves. Telling them instead that it is wicked to be a banker or lawyer is like telling them they should know their place and leave being middle class to the toffs.

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Sue Sims said...

You are absolutely correct, of course.

I read the first bile-laden article from this guy a couple of weeks back, and couldn't help focusing on the Westminster statistic - 60% getting into Oxbridge. Funnily enough, I'd been at Westminster four weeks earlier: my husband and I run a general knowledge competition for schools, and the National Finals were held at Westminster, whose team were in the Finals.

The eight teams in the National Finals were all brilliant, and almost all from independent schools, though at regional level, there are plenty of maintained schools which take part. Westminster won - for the fourth year in a row; the boys are utterly brilliant, and seem to know more or less everything. Obviously Oxbridge want them - not because of some underhand exercise of class privilege, but because they are unbelievably clever.


I don't believe it's the teaching, as such. At least, it's only the teaching inasmuch as any teacher (I'm one) will operate better with a really good class, where one can deliver lessons without having to consider the dumb clucks. But far more, it's the quality of the students.

And here, I'm afraid, there are two reasons why the independent grammar and public schools attract bright kids. First, they almost all offer some scholarships. Secondly, you have to have money to send a child who doesn't get such a scholarship to an independent school; and in our society, those with money may have inherited it, but have more often these days made money themselves. While there are plenty of clunkheads who have money, there are far, far more who have coined the cash because they have the brains to do so: and their children are likely to have inherited those brains.

In other words, Oxbridge wants these kids not because they're middle-class, but because they're bright...but they're bright because their parents are middle-class.

I teach in a state grammar school, and can confirm that the students who get to Oxbridge (not many: an average of about three or four a year out of an Upper Sixth of about 140) are the exceptionally brilliant ones: they are also the children of middle-class parents. But that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Sue Sims

James said...

Hi Sue,

Thank you for your post. As I've mentioned before, I agree with you.

Still, this never seems to be a very popular point of view.

Best wishes