Thursday, January 15, 2009

Social Immobility

One of the great cornerstones of the 1997 Labour administration was meant to be greater social mobility. Indeed, the entire New Labour project was an exercise in breaking down traditional barriers – in part epitomised by the uneasy relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

It is increasingly apparent that the Government’s original noble ambitions have not only failed to be achieved but their clumsy attempts at levelling the playing fields have been responsible for a decline in the much vaunted social mobility.

The abolition of the assisted places schemes for fee-paying schools and the introduction of university fees are, to my mind, unforgivable derogation from their aims. The latter particularly has had the dual effects of saddling all students with an added £10,000 of debt and ensuring that those from the poorest backgrounds are deprived access.

Irrespective of Liam Byrne’s fatuous and meaningless promises of “investing in aspiration”, the core of all social mobility (beyond success in quiz shows) is education.

For me, and I’m aware other contributors here may have differing opinions, the answer is a return to the grammar school system. Grammar schools lifted people from backgrounds which meant they were unable or unwilling to access fee-paying schools – all that was required was intelligence. At the risk of exaggerating their Utopian credentials, they created an environment where academic achievement was encouraged and where background and class were largely irrelevant.

As with almost all policies, there was and would be a modicum of interference with its natural workings by well-meaning but wealthier parents but this could be counteracted by a focus on innate ability rather than exams for which coaching is more effective (for example based on teacher references and the testing of maths and English rather than verbal reasoning and knowledge of history or classics).

As to the other great question, how would the 75% who fail to get in benefit, the answer is three fold. Firstly, the current comprehensive system is an undisputed failure and the reintroduction of grammar schools will rapidly help the top 25% and do little or no damage to the prospects of the rest. Secondly, their creation could be complemented by sister schools (including even the Government’s beloved academies) which focus on vocational skills. Finally, there could be increased mobility between grammar and secondary schools which would serve to drive standards in both institutions. Also, and I admit this might be a hard sell, there might be some merit in focusing on those sections of society which favour hard work over indolence, achievement over failure and endeavour over languor.

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