A new report from the Cabinet Office claims that social mobility in Britain may be improving at last.
Such stories cheer everyone up, even if on closer examination the report actually concedes: “Broadly social mobility is no greater or less since 1970.”
Indeed, there is strong evidence that what your parents do remains more important in shaping your destiny in Britain than in most other advanced countries. Here, the number of books in the family home is, for example, a far more powerful predictor of how a child will do at school than it is in France and Germany.
Naturally, most families will always try to do the best for their children: no government should ever attempt to stop or penalise that. But surely we should expect good education and training to enable children without book-filled homes and ambitious families to do well? That is where Britain is failing.
The Jesuits famously said that if you gave them a child until the age of seven, they would give you the adult. Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children and schools, is trying to match their zeal for early intervention. Of course good quality childcare matters, but children are resilient and the early years need not determine their destiny. Nor should they. There is a lot that a Conservative government can do to boost people’s chances throughout their lives. In particular we can do so much better in what has been called the “big sort”, the move from school to work. I have been to fantastic university summer schools and seen 17-year-olds from schools that do not send many pupils on to university suddenly excited by the idea of being an engineer or a doctor.
Then I talk to them about their GCSEs or the A-levels they are taking. These can be a bizarre mix which bear no relation to the subjects needed to get a place. I invariably leave wondering if any well-informed adult has ever given that teenager as much as an hour to discuss his or her long-term ambitions and the subjects to study to achieve them. The answer is probably not. That is why we are proposing an entitlement to independent career advice in all secondary schools.
Universities cannot be instruments of class warfare, accepting or rejecting students because of their background. But they can identify hidden talents. They should be able to judge that a prospective student with mediocre A-levels from an underperforming school has the ability to achieve a good degree.
King’s College London has one of the most imaginative schemes for overcoming these barriers, in medicine. The college assesses objectively the aptitudes of teenagers from London’s toughest boroughs who do not have the A-level grades that would normally be required for places at the prestigious Guy’s and St Thomas’ medical school. It has created 50 extra places every year for these students. They take an extra year’s foundation course to bring them up to the same standard as students with excellent A-levels from good schools. They also get pastoral support. But, crucially, to qualify as a doctor they are judged by the same standards and required to get the same marks as all their fellow students.
This extended medical degree programme means daughters of Somali refugees or sons of Bangladeshi immigrants are now qualifying from one of our leading medical schools with standards of attainment as high as their fellows. Their success shows that imaginative schemes can tackle disadvantage. We should do more to support them. The conventional university league tables measure a university’s quality by the A-level grades you need to get in, so schemes such as this automatically pull them down the rankings. Maybe the tables should be tuned.
University is – or should be – only one of many ways of getting on. The vocational route to a good job matters, too. But it is a national scandal that some of our national vocational qualifications actually have negative value for an employer – they lower your chances of getting a job. Yet the government pays further education (FE) colleges to churn them out, overriding their own knowledge of what local employers actually value. Instead of funding FE colleges to carry on producing worthless qualifications, we are proposing to set them free to provide the courses that individuals want and employers value. This includes more places for adult education to help people facing an enforced career change as a result of the recession.
We can best improve social mobility if we look at every stage of life. It is never too late. We need new opportunities for an Afro-Caribbean teenager who dreams of being a doctor, a 30-year-old who would rather be a stonemason than an administrator, a 40-year-old made redundant last week, or a 50-year-old woman who has been out of the labour market caring for a terminally ill parent. The conventional debate on social mobility focuses almost exclusively on early years. Only cosmology, it has been said, attributes more power to events which took place in the distant past. Our destiny was not and should not be determined in the play pen.