Social Immobility

Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen

The chatter about social mobility from a Coalition kicking away welfare services that have kept millions from poverty disguises the fact that there has been no real upward social mobility in Britain for the past 30 years and that nowadays the only social mobility is down.

Grand announcements – like Clegg’s £5 billion premium for the most educationally disadvantaged school pupils that seeks to compensate for the LibDems’ tuition fees capitulation – have repeatedly failed to create social mobility. Even in the post-war period when substantial numbers of young people moved into occupations paying more than those of their parents, there was little ‘relative’ mobility, ie. down as well as up. Rather than challenging the inequalities of the occupational order, the upward mobility that occurred merely meant there was some more room in the middle. Via selective grammar schooling it allowed limited working-class access to expanding professional and managerial occupations sustained by full male employment and the growing welfare state.

The development of comprehensive schools and more higher education contributed to widening aspirations. But this growth was as much a consequence as a cause of limited upward mobility. This was confirmed when a decline in mobility coincided with the partial abolition of grammar schools from 1965 on. (That this was coincidental can be seen in the USA when the same period of expansion of opportunities also ended despite all-through high schools since the war.)

Hopes that an expanded middle afforded opportunities to educate the working class out of existence did not materialise. At best, there was an illusion of social mobility as the formerly manually working class shrank and many occupations were redefined as ‘professional’ and therefore requiring so-called ‘skills’ attested by educational qualifications. As a result, more people – especially women – now work in expanded office and service sectors but conditions of employment for this new non-manual working middle are increasingly insecure.

Blair and Brown put their faith in the globalised economy to provide new openings for those with qualifications at the expense of those without. New Labour’s campaign to raise ‘standards’ measured by qualifications led to unprecedented exam pass rates. Consequent allegations of ‘dumbing down’ came not only from traditionalists but also from some teachers, bullied by a  growing class of ‘managers’ (the new name for deputy and assistant head teachers) to meet targets that were raised as soon as they were achieved.

The main problem with New Labour’s ‘standards agenda’ however, was not the crushing of professional autonomy as lessons were delivered from templates so that what was taught became less important than how it could be assessed. It was far more fundamental. Whereas in the past, education was unfairly accused of failing the economy by not producing workplace skills when employers didn’t want them, now the economy has definitively failed education.

Rather than globalisation resulting in endless opportunities, employment prospects for most young people are in decline. This does not mean that there are no new professional and managerial vacancies but rather that, as ICT  sweeps through offices and work is outsourced if not exported, the term ‘white-collar employment’ is becoming meaningless. The main alternative to what are reduced to para-professions at best is a life in ‘customer services’. So it isn’t surprising that McDonalds report huge increases in applications from ‘qualified’ young people.

In a situation that we refer to as ‘education without jobs’ young people have to work harder and harder simply to maintain their place in the jobs queue. Gove’s announcement of a review of ‘vocational education’ will predictably relegate the majority to apprenticeships without jobs that will replay the Youth Training Schemes of the 1980s whilst privileging academic cramming for a minority.

Education has become like running up a down-escalator where you have to run faster and faster just to stand still as the former class pyramid has gone pear-shaped. The recent ‘social mobility’ rhetoric from politicians of all Parties disguises the fact that it is fear of downward social mobility that fuels the hysteria over educational competition for academic success.

The recession has made the situation of young people worse but it is not the cause of their problems. Likewise, we cannot ‘educate ourselves out of recession’ as even some teacher union and student leaders seem to think. Of course levels of educational provision should be defended but we also need to promote employment policies. As aspiring students face mortgaging their futures in hopes of eventual ‘graduate employment’, the promise of social mobility is exposed as a sham. Education faces its own credibility crunch and rising fees could finally burst the bubble. The main argument against them is – what else are school leavers expected to do?

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