Will the middle class ever commit to social mobility?


Alan Milburn's report on social mobility will lead to lots of hand wringing about how hard it is to break down privilege. But will anything change?

On Sunday I went to see Reginald D Hunter perform on the South Bank. His mixture of superficial social commentary and utter obscenity was pretty hit or miss. But there was one point he made that struck a chord. His father has defended himself from attack saying that he only carried some or other sexual misdemeanour ‘for the sake of the family’. As Hunter says this is the ‘universal father defence’; almost any action however crass, cruel or greedy can be justified on the grounds that it was taken in the interests of the family.

So it is with the middle classes, particularly in the pursuit of a place in a ‘good school’. Even though the evidence suggests that it is better aggregately for society to have mixed intake schools, and even though other evidence shows that 80 - 90% of a child’s performance is down to home influences, still the middle classes do everything they can to monopolise these ‘good’ schools. Presumably the most sought are among the ‘top 100 schools’ that the Conservative front bench say every school should be expected to copy.

But research published by the ESRC puts into question the whole idea of ‘good’ schools. Using value added data, Professor Harvey Goldstein and George Leckie show that there is little or no correlation between the past performance and the future prospects of a school. Indeed basing your school choice on past results is about as clever as basing your investments on the past performance of an investment fund (not that it stops people doing it.

The dynamic of a school becoming sought after is more to do with property than performance. A school may start off with an advantage such as being in a largely middle class area or having a good head. As soon as the school gets a good name, middle class people start moving into the area (the ESRC research shows there is a much stronger correlation between past school performance and property prices than with future school performance). As a consequence the intake to the school becomes more privileged, driving up further its raw league table results (which is what parents tend to look at) and so it goes on.

As I have said in the past, the barrier to social mobility in the UK is less about the lack of desire of the poor to move up and more about the utter tenacity of the upper middle classes in making sure their offspring never move down. And as the hostility people show to any tax on inheritance underlines, the vast majority of the well off are determined to make sure they pass on privilege down the generations.

Milburn’s report deserves serious debate. I am sure most of his 80 recommendations make sense. But unless the middle classes are willing to let their children stand or fall on their merit, or voters are willing to countenance a more profound redistribution of income and assets, it is difficult to see the UK becoming a more socially mobile country.

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