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Monday, 12 September 2011

Social Mobility and Equality of Opportunity

Social Mobility and Equality of Opportunity

By Andrew Brons MEP.

The Political Left believes that children are born with equal potential so if pupils from a poor background fail, their failure can be attributed to disadvantage and a denial of equality of opportunity. That is bad enough but those who would be seen as being from the Political Right seem to share their view.

The Daily Telegraph’s Education Editor, Graeme Paton, (17th June) referred to data from the Organisation for Economic co-operation and Development, in which it was shown that only 25% of ‘poor children’, in Britain, managed to exceed expectation at school, compared with 31% of ‘poor children’ in developed countries generally.

This suggested, according to Mr. Paton, that ‘disadvantaged children’ have less chance of climbing the social ladder than in most developed nations.

Indeed the Education Secretary, one Michael Gove, was reported to have said: “The scandal ‘which’ (I believe he meant ‘that’) haunts my conscience is the plight of those students from the poorest backgrounds in the poorest neighbourhoods, who need us to act if their right to a decent future is to be guaranteed”.

The OECD report revealed that 70% of poor pupils in parts of China exceeded the standard expected of them. Our 25% looked extremely poor in comparison or did it?

There are probably more talented children living in poverty in rural China, because their families have not previously been rescued by an effective education system.

It is small wonder that equality of opportunity should now be revealing their existence. There are still talented children in Britain, especially from poorer families, who fall through the net of educational opportunity. However, there are probably fewer of them.

The problem is that the Political Class generally confuses two related but distinct concepts: social mobility and equality of opportunity.

Indeed they are frequently treated as though they meant the same thing. Many commentators have bemoaned the fact that social mobility has fallen and they have attributed this to a denial of equality of opportunity. In fact the fall in social mobility is attributable to the success of equality of opportunity!

It is difficult to pinpoint a year in which equality of opportunity was attained but 1947 – the year in the Education Act 1944 was implemented- is as good as any. That was the year in which secondary education was provided for all and selective exams decided, more or less on merit, who would receive a Secondary Grammar education.

Since then, there have three or more generations enjoying equality of opportunity. Initially there would have been substantial social mobility resulting from the new equality of opportunity. Pupils, with innate ability, from humble backgrounds went to grammar schools and some from there to universities and other higher education colleges.

The professions and management positions ceased to be the preserve of those with upper and middle class backgrounds and became meritocracies. People within those occupational groups also tended to marry and procreate (now just procreate) with people of similar abilities. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that differences in intelligence are attributable to heredity rather than to environment. This has resulted in those in management and the professions becoming an intellectual caste and not simply a class caste.

Whilst there were many people of innately high intelligence in poorer occupations, before the advent of educational equality of opportunity, that number has fallen steadily in subsequent generations. There are still gifted children to be found in less well-off social classes but there are fewer now than there were and the proportion will continue to fall as they are ‘rescued’ by the education system from a future of economic failure.

Social mobility has indeed slowed down and that should be seen as a tribute to educational equality of opportunity.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. The expansion of higher education by the Major and Blair governments came at a price. Whilst it was easily affordable to provide maintenance grants and pay tuition fees, when 7% of students went on to full-time higher education, this became impossible when the figure exceeded 40%.

The result is that all students must fund their own maintenance and pay their own tuition fees.

There are now students of mediocre ability from rich backgrounds who take a university place, whilst poorer more able students might shrink from going on to higher education if the experience should carry with it a burden of debt for several years.

We have seen a move away from equality of opportunity. It must be hoped that it will not continue. An answer might be for the most able students, if from poor backgrounds, and pursuing the most useful courses, to be granted a remission of tuition fees and to be given maintenance grants. That would preserve equality of opportunity. It would probably not add to social mobility appreciably.

However, of greater importance, is that there must not be a retreat from reason and reality by those who are seen to be on the Political Right.