Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Death of Opportunity

Last month I put up an essay I had produced eight years ago about the political consensuses in Britain. However, I realised reading about the Alan Milburn report of last month into the restrictions on social mobility than a period of social consensus was coming to an end too. Of course even the concept of society took a bashing during the period of the Thatcher regime. However, ironically, Margaret Thatcher coming from a non-professional middle class background to becoming prime minister, like her successor John Major effectively from skilled working class to working in a bank, demonstrated that there was a degree of social mobility and a bank clerk could feasibly dream of holding the highest position in the UK. Contrast these to David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party who assumes he will be the next prime minister and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London; both attended the elite Eton school. These are the face of the Conservative Party as it enters the 2010s just as they could of been when it entered the 1930s.

Cameron has done nothing in his life except work for the Conservative Party, he does not even have the experience of business, the military or the media that many of his fellow Conservatives have done. Johnson is a moron, a poor quality journalist who is adept only at offending people. He has gained and retained positions just because of who he is and who he knows and seems incapable of actually showing any real ability in anything; even as a host of a comedy quiz he struggled. I do not think he should be unemployed and the electorate of London are free to elect who they could, but if he had not come from a wealthy family he never would have been in a position to even stand as a candidate let alone garner votes.

Perhaps, Tony Blair, former lawyer, began the move away from that trend, but I think it is behind the scenes that the changes to end the attitude of the 1960s-70s that people should rise as high as their abilities will allow, was really being killed. However, in the Blair years we did see the expansion of universities with the aim of 50% of 18 year olds attending them. In theory this would open up the routes especially into the professions for a broader swathe of the population, and, it was intended mean more capable people coming into public life in particular. The benefit was mainly for middle class children and working class participation after a brief rise has been static since about 2002 and with the decline in funding of lifelong education is likely to go in reverse in the next few years.

Of course the privileged have not sat still in terms of defending their interests. It was easy when only 6% of the population went to university, you could bar people from professions like medicine and the law by simply asking for a degree. Despite the success of the Open University the numbers were not sufficient to alter the balance of the intake into those areas. In fact there were other aspects happening in terms of equality for women and ethnic minorities if not for the majority of the population, i.e. working class people. Steps have been made, but if you compare the UK to many neighbouring states, most professions do not reflect the fact that 53% of the working population is female or that 17% of people in the UK are members of ethnic minorities. However, there were clear signs that even the Christian Democrat approach favoured by Blair was alarming the privileged.

All the writing about how universities should be distinguished from each other as of different ranks and people mourning the fact that in 1992 polytechnics became universities was one sign of this. Of course, many of the post-1992 universities are in a far better situation in the current economic crisis than their older rivals and just as some people now expect some UK universities to close (London Metropolitan after its fraud must be a leading candidate) others will be merged or taken over, probably by one of the stronger post-1992 universities. Other things such as dismissing of 'A' level results and the favouring of the baccaleauriate and places like University of Oxford discussing having entrance examinations again, seem like actions by the elite to reduce the pressure from the active middle class in trying to join them.

Milburn highlighted another way in which this is being done, through the use of internships. In some ways this is an extension of the policies adopted by fee-paying schools. They educate 7% of the population and yet provide 33% of MPs, 45% of civil servants, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges. Of course, they would argue that that is because they can provide the best education and facilities, though if you go around the average fee-paying school you often find that is far from being the case and many of them are in out-of-date buildings with old equipment and old educational approaches. It is more the fact that even if they taught their pupils to do nothing except recite the complete works of Rudyard Kipling, the bulk of their pupils would get good jobs due to family connections.

In the 1990s noises were made about these privileges and the fact that how could such for-profit organisations be charities so such schools gave bursaries and in 2006 regulations were changed so that the Charities Commission could be stricter on for-profit schools who were not aiding the local community sufficiently. A couple have been criticised this year and one had the charitable status revoked. However, this misses a huge point, is that even a child who gets to such schools on a bursary will never be a proper part of the school. Their parents cannot pay for the ski trips, the instruments, the other lessons that are taken for granted, actively encouraged in such schools. There is superificial widening of access but if your parents do not have sufficient money your access will never be more than superficial.

Via a long route round, this brings me back to internships. There are a couple of issues going on with them. It is clear like almost all training for young people, employers use it to get cheap or free labour and in exchange give very minimal training. 'The Guardian' reported how even MPs are exploiting the system, like glamorous industries such as fashion, journalism and other media, they use the desire of the young people as a way to get cheap workers despite the fact that each has £104,000 year to spend on help which many of them use to employ family members. They save the government £5.3 million per year, but are selling young people false hope and exploiting them as badly as the worst modelling agencies.

To work for free costs money, especially if you are going to do it for a decent amount of time sufficient to gain real skills for work. This again relies on the family income, that your parents can support you through the period of internship. Yet, internships are now seen as vital for a decent job; US websites show that in the USA students are now expected to have completed two internships by the time they have graduated if they want to get a decent job. Internships are both exploitation and a new way of putting obstacles in the way of aspirational people from non-upper class backgrounds.

Privileged people would argue that the meritocracy fostered in the 1960s (originally used a pejorative term) has failed, given the state we are in. However, many of the problems we are facing notably in terms of the environment and the financial crisis have been fostered by greedy, privileged people with an inability to see beyond their own bank balances and their children they have raised purely through nepotism rather promoting people on ability. If you want to see the kind of damage such systems promote, look at the record of the British Army.

I have recently been reading about how in 1811 the Duke of Wellington's unwillingness to meet with the Portuguese commandant of Braga allowed the army under General Soult to escape capture by the British forces in Portugal. The commandant had come to tell Wellington of the potential escape route for Soult's forces along a Roman road, but Wellington would not meet him as he was deemed to be of too low class and the British general emphasised hierarchy. This meant 20,000 French troops escaped. Wellington was one of Britain's best generals. Others who came on through status and position were far worse. The fiasco of the retreat to Corunna in Spain in 1808, the retreat from Kabul in 1842, the bulk of the action in the Crimean War and certainly the logistical support, the same in fiascos of the Zulu Wars and the Anglo-Boer Wars in South Africa 1899-1902 let alone most activity on the Western Front in the First World War (and in fact I keep thinking of more examples, just look at the American War of Independence 1775-82 and the Fall of Singapore in 1942) you can see how foolish men ignorant of basic strategy, of the fighting machine they had under them, the requirements of an army, the ingenuity of their opponents and above all disregard for their soldiers meant the UK has a huge record of military fiascos that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and lengthened wars.

If, as Milburn reports, social mobility is declining in Britain there is a 'closed shop' culture in the professions which is not levelling off but increasing. After the shifts of the post-war era there was not an infinite capacity for people to always do better than their parents, but what is happening now is so many are doing far worse. The opportunities for intelligent, hard-working and innovative people are becoming fewer and when they come they come at such a huge financial costs in terms of student loans as to hamper the rest of that person's life. Despite all the bursaries and the access, university, feasibly is still only open to the children of the rich, certainly if it is not the last thing in their lives they can afford to aspire to do. The 'me first' culture fostered from the 1980s onwards is allowing the privileged to strengthen their position. Not for the first time do I feal we are trundling back to the 1930s with Baldwinian policies waiting in the wings to be introduced by David Cameron (though I am still not convinced he will win easily) and a social elite approach to opportunity that appears modelled on the one shown in 'Gosford Park' (2001), i.e. set in 1931 with people complaining that the unemployed would not take positions as domestic servants.

Some will see the greater egalitarianism of the 1960s-70s as an 'experiment' or a 'phase' that proved to them that it could not succeed, though seems to be doing pretty well in other countries. I know the USA has always had an imperfect system but being educated in the state system and working hard can still get you a lot further than in the UK, let alone if you look at France or other European states. Yes, there are inequalities, yes there is privilege, no, not everyone can become prime minister, but these discussions actually pivot on the lives of millions of individuals and whether they will ever get the chance to head the department they work in or whether they will be barred from that on some spurious grounds and have the boss's son with minimal experience put in over them. That is what these broad debates are about frustration is household after household, life after life.

As a society, we will never know the cost of the medicines that will not be developed, the efficiency of our economy and the running of our state that will be lost because so many young people have no hope. These days they cannot even aspire to be the same as their parents in their occupations, many millions will be poorer and less secure in their work than their parents ever were. The privileged love to see binge drinking, drug abuse, youth crime, the assigning of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) because it allows them to say that other classes do not deserve opportunity and so should not have the right to it. In fact shutting off opportunity in the way that is happening so actively now, simple rots society. There were always be criminals and the socially dysfunctional, but by shutting off any hope of a better future for whole swathes of the population you simply exacerbate the problem and bring unknown misery to millions. New Labour should have really smashed the 'glass ceiling' for social as well as gender, disability and ethnic equality, but instead it has overseen a hardening of these divisions and that is a legacy all of us are going to be dealing with for the next few decades.

P.P. 09/10/2009: New findings have revealed that students from independent schools are over-represented on 'vulnerable' (i.e. to having their departments closed) but economically important degree courses such as modern languages and engineering. Independent schools teach 7% of pupils in the UK but provide 28% students doing French degrees; 38% on Italian and 41% on Spanish degrees; 25% of students studying mechanical engineering, 26% on civil engineering and 38% on general engineering degree and 38% on medical degree courses; the 42% of independent pupils who make up the students doing economics cannot really be deemed to be in a valuable subject area given how much damage such people have done to the UK in the past two years.

These figures may be taken as an excuse to boost independent education, but what such a step neglects is that these are the kind of pupils who always went to university. These degree programmes often stretch over four years, for languages you have to go abroad for a year and engineering degrees often have a year in industry, so students need more money to complete the course than on other degree programmes. In addition, these figures show up the opportunities independent school pupils have at school and to travel before they even reach university; also that their parents are more likely to speak foreign languages and particularly to be doctors. What the figures show is that if you go to a comprehensive school or even a grammar school you stand little chance of moving into these subject areas. For the sake of the future of the UK more resources need to go into state schools otherwise it will continue to be the case that too much of British industry is driven by people who have come from a particularly narrow-minded mould, out of touch with the bulk of UK society. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8291320.stm

P.P. 14/10/2009: The evidence that even attending university does not give you any greater benefits in terms of social mobility seems to keep on coming in. It also seems that the peak period of such opportunity, sometime in the early 2000s is now well passed without having made much of an impact on the social background of those in professional jobs. With the recession it is likely to worsen. It is easy to slip into seeing the recession as having been engineered by the elites to knock back what they saw as middle and even working class people becoming too 'uppity' and pressing into the jobs that were usually reserved for their children. Whether it was ever intentional or is just a by-product of what is happening, the elites can sit back and be happy that they are facing far less challenge from the lower classes than they would have done 5-10 years ago.

The BBC continues covering these issues: 70% of judges, 54% of CEOs, 54% of leading journalists and 51% of doctors went to independent schools which only educate 7% of the population. As anyone who has been round many independent schools knows they often are in worse conditions than children at a local comprehensive and often receive outdated teaching, but of course they do not have to try as hard as many of them will be guaranteed jobs and easy career progression simply because of who they know. I am heartened to see that 32% of MPs and 24% of vice-chancellors of universities went to independent schools, though this still means that indepedent school pupils are over-represented 3-5 times, this is better than 10 times over-represented. However, I do worry that the balance will get worse again meaning that even more than at present the bulk of us and our children will never stand a chance of holding a professional job certainly one that shapes the country even if we are capable of doing it. In our place will be incompetent people who simply got there because of who their family is and which school they went to. For the latest BBC coverage see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8295524.stm

P.P. 25/01/2010: Working for a company which seems to think it is normal that what is or not acceptable to say in any situation seems to be the privilege of affluent employees no matter what their standing within the context of the company, I am feeling the bite of the power of the privileged more sharply than I have for many years.  That aside, I noted the continued attempt, now that higher education takes in so much more of the population to try to draw divisions within it, down the line of old fashioned assumptions.  No-one, even the Million group which represents post-1992 universities seems willing to say that in some fields you stand more chance of getting a job with a degree from a newer university which properly engages with the subject than from a stuck-in-the-mud traditional one.  Now this snobbery is spreading to schools as well.

The government has resisted the rush by independent (i.e. fee-paying) schools to adopt the IGCSE in the place of the GSCE, so now people like the head of the elite Harrow School Barnaby Lenon is whining that poorer children are being lied to about their chances of having a decent career studying the standard qualifications that the bulk of schools still offer.  He refers to 'worthless qualifications' and inidicates that he feels educating the masses of young people will simply lead to circumstances like Weimar Germany or current day Zimbabwe, not realising that actually in those countries education qualifications were/are a rarity reserved for the elite.  So Lenon is equating mass education with dictatorship, rather what is in fact the case, it promotes democracy.  Of course, Lenon does not want to advance democracy and certainly not equality, he wants to keep education and the paths it opens restricted to those who have privilege already.  See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8475876.stm

It is clear that the privileged feel they are beginning to win the argument and with a few more pushes will be able not only to push back some of the increase in social mobility of the past decade but also push it back to before the 1960s changes in opportunity.  This will certainly come about if the Conservatives, no longer fronted by middle class people who worked their way up like Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but by people from the elite, notably David Cameron, win the next election.  The further shutting off of opportunity for thousands of young people is iniquitous and needs to be fought strongly.  This is not about struggling for greater opportunity for ordinary people, it is about maintaining the opportunity opened up over the past four decades and not allowing us to slide back to a situation of the 19th century in which people got a position because of who their father was, not because of any ability.  Returning to that means not only frustration for many thousands but also decay for the UK as a whole.

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