Clearly I angered a few people with my comments about social mobility earlier this week. In particular, people objected to the implication that I dissaproved of the efforts of middle class people to pass on advantages to their children. Let me try to clarify.
Middle class families will automatically tend to pass on privilege through their possession of cultural and social capital. These are the understandings, assumptions and networks that shape the expectations of young people and provide the routes to personal advancement. While social policy may seek to enhance the capital available to poorer communities there is no case for seeking to disrupt this way of passing on social advantage; after all it is not much more than good parenting.
But there are other ways of protecting privilige which are less benign. The point I was making earlier in the week was about the tendency of middle class people to colonise so-called 'good' schools through their home buying or sudden religious conversion. I highlighted ESRC research which showed, using value added data, that there is little correlation between how successful a school was in the past and how good it will be in the future. The reason some schools seem to get better year on year is more a consequence of social sorting (middle class colonisation) than inherent school quality.
It would be better both for schools and for wider society if middle class parents put less energy in trying to get into 'good' schools and more in supporting their children and being active parents in more socially mixed schools (which, as it happens, is what I have done with my two boys). There is a marginally greater risk of a child failing in a more mixed school but people (and media comment) exaggerate this danger hugely ; as I pointed out, 90% of the performance of children can be predicted from the resources and support they get at home. But, while going to a mixed school is a small risk for the well-off there is clear evidence that greater social mixing and a wider range of ability in a school are most definitely good for children from poorer backgrounds.
I'm not in the business of lecturing anyone about their school choices, but this is, it seems to me, an instance where the desire to give our own kids the very best chance runs against what may be in the interests of society as a whole.
It is because, when faced with this dilemma, most people will put the marginal advantages of their own child over the social good that the aspiration to transform social mobility may continue to be a pious hope.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.