Schools and social mobility


Yesterday felt like a parody of politics in this country. A much-vaunted government “strategy” for social mobility was launched which, in policy terms, amounted to essentially nothing. Unfortunately, asking businesses and government departments to be more socially conscious when hiring interns will do little to improve the chances of people born to poor families. But Labour's reaction – attacking Nick Clegg for “hypocrisy” in talking about the need for more social mobility, since he was born into a rich family – was absurd. As Nick Thornsby asked, if Clegg had announced that he was going to ignore social mobility would Harriet Harman say, “Quite right too, given his background”?

The focus on internships is beside the point. People who have managed to graduate from a decent university with the skills that would make them potential hires for good jobs are not the ones we should be concerned about. Many, and maybe most, children born into poor families will receive a terrible education in a bad comprehensive school. The state schools system destroys poor childrens’ opportunities, thanks to plummeting quality and standards. The fact that many university graduates in this country cannot write to a basic standard of English should say enough about the quality of English lessons in many schools in Britain.

The Sutton Trust, an educational charity, has looked into the rates of entry to Oxbridge by children with good A-Levels across the socioeconomic spectrum. The results show that, irrespective of family income levels, students who receive excellent A-Levels have roughly the same rate of entry to Oxbridge. The problem is that students from relatively poor families are far less likely to get those A-Levels than those from relatively well-off families. Students on Free School Meals perform disproportionately badly across the board in A-Level results. Focusing on the school-leaving point (as opponents of tuition fees do) is too late to do anything to help mobility. Likewise with a focus on making internship access more equitable – the people for whom an internship might lead to a good job are not the people most in need of help.

Fifty years of school comprehensivization (an ugly word for an ugly policy) has done enormous damage to the prospects of children from poor families. As Tom wrote this morning, rigid state bureaucracies in healthcare create bad outcomes for patients. Education is no different. What can we do to reverse this? Some propose a return to grammar schools, which may improve mobility but would do little to help those who fail their 11-plus. Competition and choice in schooling drives up standards – allowing profit-making companies to set up free schools would be a start, but a school voucher system like the one Milton Friedman proposed is the probably best option. 

Any discussion of social mobility that doesn’t focus on the failure of the state school system is fundamentally unserious. We need to get real, and get radical.