Reeta Chakrabarti, the BBC`s social affairs correspondent, wrote earlier this year that "successive governments have all tried to increase social mobility" in Britain, with "varied rates of success".That last point certainly is irrefutable; in 1991 17% of top earners came from low-earning families, but by 2000 that fell to 13%, with 42% from the richest families. The situation today is worse; a recent OECD survey, looking at "intergenerational social mobility", which basically means the extent "individuals move up the social ladder compared with their parents", found Britain at the bottom of a league table of twelve developed OECD countries. One has to question, therefore, whether the current coalition government really wants social mobility to be increased at all. Another league table puts Britain in 28th position out of 34 developed countries in terms of equality; the bottom 50% of the UK population owns between 2% and 3% of the wealth.
As Adnan Al-Daini pointed out in his excellent article for the Huffington Post, "Corrupt Capitalism -The Denial of Equality of Opportunity", the ending of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the grant to help students from poor backgrounds stay on at sixth form, and the huge hike in university fees, are two obvious examples of coalition government measures making social and economic movement less likely. But there are others.
One of Gove`s first actions as Education Secretary was to create a crisis out of another round of excellent GCSE results, giving him the unfounded excuse he wanted to begin a raft of changes to the assessment system. Ending coursework, modules, chances to resit, and relying solely on end-of-course examinations all have the effect of benefitting children from well-off, stable and educated families, and all were introduced against the advice of experienced teachers and examiners. Similar things are happening at A-levels, with AS examinations removed along with coursework and the January modules, and no doubt criterion referenced assessment will come under scrutiny soon; all of these were intended to make assessment fairer, enabling a greater variety of skills plus understanding to be tested, rather than relying on memory-based examinations. Who is the better historian? The student who can remember to put ten battles in order in their essays, along with the correct dates, or the student who can only remember five, but can analyse and evaluate a document written to justify the wars?
Whatever happened to the ideas of level playing fields and equality of opportunity? Austerity measures, leading to worse poverty, imposed on many homes will add to the problem, and increase pressures on potential university students to leave school early and get low-paid jobs, often on zero-hours contracts, and usually with little prospect of promotion.
The introduction of new grades at GCSE, 1-9, cannot have been initiated for any reason other than the fact that too many state school students were getting top grades, and it`s the same reason the A* grade was introduced in the first place, By extending the grading process the hope is that superior results can be attained again by the private sector, and that more state school pupils can be classed as failures, who then become so disillusioned with education, they get away from it as soon as possible. Inevitably, the effect will be fewer state pupils attaining top levels, and when something like 50% of the students are unable to succeed, new, more suitable, courses will have to be devised for them, and then, of course, separate schools will have to be created. The "back to the 1950s" charge begun by Gove will have reached its ideological conclusion, and social mobility will decrease further.
This also explains why the government uses the flawed results of the so-called Pisa tests to justify making such changes, when other education surveys, such as recent Pearson ones, have shown Britain`s education standards to be relatively much higher. Sadly, even the shadow secretary for education appears to form his opinions after listening to Gove`s speeches and watching television documentaries about poor discipline in British schools! An article late last year in the Guardian by Fiona Miller, "Who has all the big ideas?" revealed how the majority of advisers and members of think-tanks behind the main parties`education policies are privately educated, with Oxbridge degrees. It is very unlikely they will have the knowledge and expertise necessary to come up with ideas which will lead to a state education system promoting social mobility!
Whilst many university graduates fail to land jobs where they can earn £21,000 a year, to warrant their paying back student loans, Oxbridge graduates dominate the top jobs in our society. Oxbridge takes a large proportion of their students from the private sector, which is attended by only 7% of the pupil population. Until all universities are allowed only the same percentage of their students from private schools, how can anyone expect social mobility to improve? Instead of doing something to redress the balance, like perhaps ending the charitable status enjoyed by private schools, or ending the exemption from VAT which private school fees enjoy, recent governments have done precisely nothing. Internships, where graduates from wealthy homes get valuable but unpaid "work experience" are yet to be banned. Yet politicians expect the electorate to believe that social mobility is on their agenda.
Before the general election next year, party leaders need to be pressed on how they intend, if elected, to improve the social and economic prospects of young people from poor backgrounds. It`s a heaven-sent opportunity for Miliband to prove that his party is different from the others, but if he cannot show the young people of this country, desperate as they are for fairness and level playing fields, that he is worth voting for, we cannot blame them for their cynicism, and for not voting.
The question has been asked before: what is the point of being a Labour Prime Minister if all you intend to do is tinker, when you have the chance to transform?