Social mobility and inequality seem to be the buzz words this week. And about time too. Lots of talk about why very bright working class kids with decent exam results who still fail to get into the best jobs or enter the professions.
The Observer’s editorial on social mobility said this,
A [government] review of barriers to working-class entry into the professions, revealed in this week's paper, will examine - alongside a forthcoming white paper into social mobility - some of the more insidious factors behind inequality, particularly those that encourage and sustain cosy networks. Increasingly, the first step in building a career - from the law to the theatre - is to secure work experience, often via placements that go unadvertised. These hidden ladders are more likely to be seized by the children of the professional classes, kept informed through friends and contacts of their parents.
[And if they do find a placement]would [they] have the requisite presentational skills to best exploit the stint? For even the straight-A pupil might find herself left behind by her better-connected and more articulate peer. Schools with large working-class intakes are to be encouraged to develop pupils' self-esteem, confidence and articulacy.
While all the social skills in the world are not going to propel bright children into the professions if they do not have the necessary qualifications - the poorest children remain three times less likely than their wealthier contemporaries to secure good GCSEs - this seems a positive idea.
What’s so shameful about our society and our school system is that it’s taken till now for our newspaper and political elite to start seeing the need to “develop pupils' self-esteem, confidence and articulacy”. This is so appalling, it’s hard to know where to begin.
From the mid-sixties there was an effort by the teaching profession to educate children in Primary schools in a way that allowed them to develop all of their intelligences - personal, social, emotional and spiritual, and become people who had high degrees of self-confidence, and well-developed powers of self-expression, creativity and imagination..
That movement slowed down dramatically when the National Curriculum was introduced, and those on the right of the political spectrum (politicians and teachers, Labour and Tory) began a largely successful campaign to denigrate the innovations of Plowden and the ‘progressives’, and return schools to Victorian methodology, with a disintegrated curriculum and didactic rote-learning.
The so-called ‘child-centred’ movement ground to a complete halt when SATs and league tables were introduced, along with a punitive inspection regime. A few schools stood firm and fought hard to maintain their focus on the actual personal wellbeing and learning needs of their children, but there were virtually no new schools joining the movement towards a more enlightened education system.
And no wonder. ‘Standards’ were now all that mattered, which meant focusing all of a school’s efforts on cramming and preparing children for tests, if you wanted to cover your back and remain in the profession, i.e. not be sacked, especially if you practiced your profession in a working class community with large numbers of disadvantaged children who struggled in Primary school to cope with the demands of meaningless, decontextualised and demotivating test preparation.
So now there are voices suggesting that these working class children should be allowed and encouraged to develop “self-esteem, confidence and articulacy”. I hope one day all the bastards who have colluded in preventing them for all these years from developing those crucial psychological strengths and intelligences, those key factors in the development of resilience and enjoyment of life, will be held to account.
But we know they won’t, don’t we? We know they’ll do whatever they’re told to do; they’ll go whichever way the wind blows, and claim that they were only obeying orders, and so cover their backs. Such clever bastards.
What’s also shocking is that commentators and politicians are advocating more emphasis on PHSE (knowing that Alexander and Rose are about to publish these recommendations in their Primary reviews) because it will help more working class kids to compete for entry into the professions. What about the rest of them? What about those who prefer entry into walks of life that are ‘non-professional’? Don’t they also need and benefit from having all of their intelligences and competencies developed to high levels? Or don’t they matter, as usual?
The Observer’s editorial was headed, “At last, in idea that encourages upward mobility”. Leaving aside the fact that such ideas have been around for a very long time, and the ‘at last’ only applies to New Labour, it’s sickening that their only interest in such ideas is that they might benefit the aspirational few that might wish to enter the professions and become ‘upwardly mobile’. It’s not enough, you see, for anyone to be content with being a member of the ‘working classes’, to be a plumber, a secretary or a mere classroom assistant, for example, even though we live in an age when even ‘professionals’ are mere wage slaves, working to targets and production quotas set by the bosses, using production methods (‘The Literacy Strategy’, ‘Grammar for Writing’, didactic teaching) that are prescribed and demanded by the elites in Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster.
As far as those elites are concerned, anyone who wishes to remain a member of the working classes and chooses to live in a working class community must be a moron. Their idea of success in life, as far as kids in working class communities are concerned, is for kids to get a fistful of exam passes and migrate to the middle class suburbs where they can live a life of glorious isolation within a nuclear family.
They have no idea of communities where kinship and neighbourliness are part of an everyday reality. They have no idea about, let alone respect for, working class solidarity, mutual support and friendship.
Last December 19th, Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’, wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian, under the heading, “A better life shouldn’t mean leaving your peers”. I agree with that key idea, though the piece itself is somewhat muddled and confusing. Nevertheless, she has some valid thoughts, and it’s worth reading her piece. Here’s an extract:
This week's Cabinet Office publication on raising aspirations among young people living in deprived areas rightly made a connection between their desire to stay on at school after 16 and the strength of their social bonds. If entire peer groups show no inclination to stay on, individuals within those groups find it extraordinarily difficult to go against the grain. No one wants "a shit life", which is how I heard one such man describe it, but getting out of one requires resources that the group to which they've gravitated lacks: self-confidence, skills and a lack of loyalty. The creed of "us" against "them" remains powerful.
The service economy, reliant on strong communication skills and consensus-building, favours the feminine. By contrast, as researchers from Cardiff University found, many young men growing up in former industrial areas cannot stand the humiliation of such work and prefer to stay unemployed.
Yet they must either stay unemployed for life, or cave in to minimum-wage work, if they are to stay within the community that raised and which supports them. To find better work they must leave, whether by going to university or by moving, effectively, to the south-east. This is why the northern cities highlighted in the Cabinet Office paper are still leeching people to the south.
But if young people are encouraged to develop aspirations to attend university, to broaden their horizons and to have new experiences, they will almost certainly have to leave their neighbourhoods in order to do so. In areas of strong social bonds - where everyone does the same thing and where there is no threat to the collective sense of what "people like us" are able or unable to do - leaving will cause a rupture. They have to be able to manage the often passive, sometimes forceful, rejection it entails.
What I am saying is that social mobility is painful. If inducements to move "upwards" are delivered from the top down to individuals, rather than generated within communities, those who leave behind their peers may never again feel entirely comfortable in any social group. The old group will express its hurt at "how you've changed"; the new one will seem blithe and over-entitled. No one wants to waste their life. No one wants their lives to be petty and aimless. Everyone wants, in some way, to be productive. The goal of the Cabinet Office team must be that no one pays over the odds for the privilege.
What we need to keep in mind is that our governing and managing elites see leaving your peers as essential, if you’re to have a ‘better life’, join the rat race, etc. Which is why their only model for educational success has been the getting of the GCSEs and A Levels (to the exclusion of all else) that will put young people on some escalator to higher education and the professions, banking, big business, etc, thereby earning the salary levels that will enable them to migrate to the soulless suburbs, commuter towns and elite neighbourhoods. All else is failure and a ‘shit life’.
Liam Byrne, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Minister for the Cabinet Office, is in the spotlight. Crazy job description, crazy guy. Readers of this blog will be aware that Oxzen is no fan of NuLabour, to say the least, but Byrne seems an interesting guy, and a good speaker. He went to an Essex comprehensive school that suffered badly in the days when Thatcher systematically under-invested in education, and state schools were under-staffed, shabby places. He has two children who are in Primary school.
This week Mr Byrne has been popping up everywhere, from Radio 4 to Newsnight, talking about the need to invest lots more in Nursery and Early Years education, in apprenticeships, and in measures (see above) that will give the children of working class families better access to the professions.
He’s also taking about ensuring that more jobs are created that have skills training attached.
All of which is very welcome, but should have been tackled by NuLabour a decade ago.
On Tuesday this week Polly Toynbee’s column in the Guardian was one of the most positive and uplifting I’ve read in weeks, if not months. Please read it. Obama’s election was the last time I felt so positive.
In it she’s commenting on the social mobility White Paper, and says,
Here comes startling news. The social mobility white paper published today will propose legislation of extraordinary radicalism - simple, fundamental and profound. It should have been Labour's guiding light for the last 11 years - but better late than never.
The government will create a new over-arching law creating a duty on the whole public sector to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. This single legal duty will stand as the main frame from which all other equality legislation flows. Race, gender and disability injustices are all subsets of the one great inequality - class. It trumps them all. The gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than in almost all rich nations, putting the UK with the United States among the most unequal.
This new duty to narrow the gap would permeate every aspect of government policy. Its possible ramifications are mind-bogglingly immense - as astonishing as Tony Blair's promise to abolish child poverty: it will make that pledge more achievable by 2020.
Harriet Harman, the head of the government's equality office, is the architect of the new law and will outline its meaning and importance in a speech to the Fabian Society's annual conference on Saturday. Business secretary Peter Mandelson will speak at the Fabian event too, which should be interesting. Harman fought a long and successful battle for cabinet support, with virtually all agreeing with enthusiasm to its inclusion in today's white paper, though with some notable opposition. The only bill it could be included in is the imminent equalities bill, making equality itself the prime objective. One cabinet member described it with relish as "socialism in one clause".
Harman's law will be considerably more significant than the new social mobility review chaired by the resurrected Alan Milburn. Trying to get more people from poor backgrounds into the top professions is a reasonable endeavour: the army, medicine, the law, politics, media and most professions are dominated by the privately educated. Finding ways to get bright pupils from poor families into internships and work experience to reach top occupations will no doubt help to slightly rebalance the odds for a few. Geoffrey Vos QC, former head of the Bar Association, who sits on the Milburn review, chairs the Social Mobility Foundation which helps high-flying pupils on free school meals into top-rank professions.
But the evidence, globally, is that little progress can be made until the country as a whole is more equal. Inequality is the root cause of social immobility. However, politicians of all parties are happiest talking about "opportunity", pulling the ablest up the ladders - without too many questions asked about why the ladders are so steep, and why the distance is so great from bottom to top. It is a great deal less controversial than talk of narrowing the gap itself.
Harman's law gets to the root of the question. Only by making the whole country fundamentally fairer will equal opportunities follow. What might it mean? All will depend on the legal detail. Will it be an aspiration or will it have legal teeth? It will certainly mean every public authority will have to ensure that how it spends money and how it fixes its priorities sets a course towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Poor children might need to have much more spent on their education per head than the better-off do. Sure Start toddlers might need more funds than older children. It might mean local lotteries to see that all children get equal access to the best schools. Poor parts of a borough might attract more services to pull them up to the standards of richer areas.
Imagine how this law might bite on central government - what might it require of the Treasury? Tax credits and benefits would rise to lift families over the poverty threshold. The Low Pay Commission would set the minimum wage at a level that narrowed the pay gap, instead of falling behind. Public sector pay would rise for the lowest grades, all the cleaners, carers, dinner ladies, porters and clerks earning less than a living wage. "It is our task in government to play our part in fashioning a new social order with fairness and equality at its heart," Harriet Harman will say on Saturday. "We want to do more than just provide 'escape routes' out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide."
If not now, when? Custodians of the citadels of wealth have wrecked the economy, their folly damaging the chances of poor school leavers - while their own offspring will be unscathed. There is no better time to embark on Harman's "new social order".
It seemed incredible when it started, that Israel was prepared to slaughter 300 Palestinians and destroy large amounts of property and infrastructure in revenge for largely ineffectual rocket attacks. But we’re now up to more than 1,000 killed, a great many of whom are women and children, with schools and homes shelled and hit with missiles whenever the army decided there might be members of Hamas sheltering within them.
This week I heard an Israeli spokesman say to a radio interviewer, “What would you do if London was hit by rockets?” Such a pity that the interviewer didn’t have the wit to say, “Look mate, London was hit hard by IRA bombs, but we didn’t see fit to shell and rocket Catholic communities and kill innocent men, women and children in revenge”. And we didn’t imagine we could defeat the IRA by killing all of them, even if we did try to imprison them all in H blocks.
Peace is only achievable, in situations where people have genuine grievances, through the use of restraint, dialogue and compromise, predicated on a spirit of non-violence and reconciliation.
There’s now widespread talk about how the international community can deal with Israel’s war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law. The Guardian had a front page column, headed, “Demands grow for Gaza war crimes investigation”. Please read it.
Monday’s Guardian had 3 excellent letters, from Edward John, David Freeman and Miles Halpin. Please read them as well:
Monday's paper also had the following, in its editorial about the presidential transition:
Mr Obama intends to flood the world with diplomats rather than pilotless drones. But here too he will have to be selective. The search for peace in Palestine must come higher up his agenda. After what has happened in Gaza in the past fortnight, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself is not enough. The US has to reset the parameters within which the next Israeli prime minister, probably a Likud one, operates. Washington can do this. It provides the smart bombs, the X-band radar and the spare parts of the F-16s that Israel uses. Israel should be told: if you use our weapons, you play by our rules.
There was an incredible piece in Tuesday’s Guardian by a Sri Lankan newspaper editor who lived and died in the service of truth. You must read it.
This extraordinary article by the editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader was published three days after he was shot dead in Colombo.
“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”
Just when I was convinced that Andrew Marr is one our best and brightest journalists and commentators, he says this (in a programme on 'kindness'):
"Sexuality is profoundly selfish and self-centred."
Duh! Is this man a mere onanist?
I can’t be bothered writing anything about Prince Harry. It can’t be easy growing up a Prince, in a barmy Royal family, within a racist, bigoted and ignorant group of peers. Even Prince Siddartha had to leave home and go wandering alone in the world in order to find enlightenment and Buddhahood.