Social Mobility tsar? He’s not going to do it alone ….

1 Jun

Am I the only person who thinks there’s some irony in having a social mobility ‘tsar’?  A tsar is a supreme ruler in Russia and Eastern Europe – the word derives from Caesar or ‘Emperor’ – could new clothes be required? Surely ‘social mobility’  should be headed up by a crew (maybe even a posse?) of people who have been to State schools and achieved high office – but I guess it’s likely that there just aren’t enough of them in the current ruling groups to make such a proposition practical….

And herein lies the problem of the current social mobility agenda.  It’s a bit like that old Irish joke, where a confused motorist in rural Ireland waves down a passer-by and asks for directions to his destination.  The Irishman replies ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’.

So, what do we have?  A great education system – if you can afford to be educated privately, or live in an area where there are grammar schools, or have faith (or enough of it to practise enough to get into best local option) or are Celtic – in the periphery of the UK the State sector often produces better results than in England.  If, on the other hand, you live in inner city England and your parents are not well-educated, your chances of entering the ‘top’ institutions and professions are often less, as your local school is less likely to be high-performing.  You may be able to reach the top, but it will require something more of you to do so.

And what else do we have?  A professional elite even narrower in background than our European counterparts, a system of privilege that depends on having attended two institutions – Oxford and Cambridge – and a smattering of Russell Group Universities beyond – and an attitude from the top, that having enjoyed these precious things, ‘we want to make them accessible to you’ – never mind that there’s limited funding for change, or that there may be cultural or qualifications barriers to entry; never mind that 60% of graduates are women, but only 30% of top jobs are held by them.

There seems to be some consensus that the early years that are the most important for determining future life chances, because of brain development,  because of habituation to books and learning, because of early socialisation, because it is easier than dealing with underachieving adolescents. And who are the main influences then? Parents – often predominantly mothers – as fathers are more likely to be higher earners and concentrating more on the income side of things in those pre-school and foundation years of education.  So it would appear that a lot of social mobility comes back to family policy – enabling mothers and fathers to both contribute to earning and to childrearing in a way which gives their children the solid base from which to progress in life, and which equips them for the ladder ahead.  So if we really want to attain greater equality of opportunity and outcomes, perhaps the Government should appoint a tsarina, and she and the tsar can try and work out together how best to balance the paid and unpaid elements of success in life, as thousands of parents do for their own children every day.

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