Alan Milburn,social mobility and education

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

‘Social mobility,’ Nick Clegg declared on 26th May, ‘is the central preoccupation of this government.’

His speech trailed a report by Alan Milburn, former New Labour Minister and now the Coalition’s ‘social mobility Tsar’, which attacked the professions for failing to be more socially inclusive. The Report (Fair Access to the Professions) singled out medicine in particular, but also argued that law, politics and journalism still unduly recruit from private schools and a minority of universities.

Of course this is true but the Coalition do not want to change the super-selective system English of education. Indeed, their higher education reforms make it worse – medical degrees are all at the most expensive English universities and last longer than any other course, making them even more unaffordable for those unprepared for fees of 6 x £9,000 p.a. + expenses. Instead, the Coalition repeat the tired refrain – first heard from Attlee’s first Minister of Education after the war – of ‘making all state schools as good as the best private schools’ so as to ensure equal access to elite universities. ‘What could be fairer than that?’ as ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson asked.

This argument is used by today’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to justify his impending reform of the National Curriculum for schools. Gove’s English Baccalaureate he has already inflicted on all secondary schools consists of the traditional subjects since, not being able (at least not yet?) to reintroduce grammar schools; Gove wants all schools to return to the grammar school curriculum that preserves the academic ethos he cherishes under the pretence that this will increase social mobility.

This avoids the invidious cut-off point at 11+ condemning three quarters of the population to secondary moderns that a national return to grammar schools would represent. The vagaries of predicting the psychologically discredited ‘IQ’ in the 11+ test are also avoided, what though the notion of genetically inherited ‘intelligence’ is popularly sustained by what has been called ‘The New IQism’.

In any case, bringing back the grammars would not restart social mobility since there has been no real upward social mobility since the end of what Milburn calls ‘the golden age’ of the 1950s and ’60s. Then post-war economic development allowed not only expansion of the welfare state but sustained the growth of a non-manual professional class. Working class children were thus able to move up alongside rather than displace those from the middle and upper middle classes. Many, but certainly not all, of these young people were the products of grammar schools – but this was coincidental.

Also coincidental was that this period of what sociologists call absolute upward social mobility (since very few people went down, as would happen if social mobility were ever relative), limited as it was, came to an end at the same time as comprehensive schools were introduced in England and Wales. That this was a coincidence can be seen by comparison with the USA where all-through comprehensive high schools had been introduced after the war and the same period of limited absolute upward social mobility also came to an end there as a result of worldwide economic crisis from 1973 onward.

Since then, declining social mobility has not been due to the ‘underperformance’ of comprehensive schools, but to the fact that managerial and professional jobs ceased expanding at the same rate as they had done previously. At the same time, the level of qualifications held by the population increased at a far greater rate than the number of jobs that required them. As a result, young people today graduate from school, college and university ‘overqualified but underemployed’ (Ainley and Allen 2010).

Widening participation to education extended for longer and longer has been a cruel con. It promised to professionalise the proletariat but actually disguised an on-going proletarianisation of the professions as traditional professional employment has been rendered increasing insecure. This undercut the illusion that joining the new working-middle of society made you middle class in the traditional sense, like buying your own home was also supposed to do.

However, what is happening is an on-going class reformation that in a polarising society sandwiches the new working-middle ‘between the snobs and the yobs’, as had been said. Or rather, between the super-rich above and a ‘rough and unskilled’ section of the formerly manually working class that has been pushed down into so-called ‘underclass’ status below. Failed by academic schooling and worthless vocational qualifications, their children were referred to by the New Labour acronym of NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training). Condemned to the permanent and structural unemployment that has ratcheted up in the latest recession, ‘the criminals who shame the nation’ as The Telegraph called them (10/8/11), have become marginal to society. Without work and without hope, they no longer play by any rules – as seen in last summer’s riots.

Aggravated by on-going automation and outsourcing, this grey economy of part-time, unregulated, insecure and contract/ agency work, which makes up the 40 per cent of jobs estimated to require only one or two days practise to perform, continues to grow. Meanwhile, the graduatisation of a new tranche of retail and service work pushes those who would previously have taken these jobs further down the queue for employment.

To prevent themselves and their children from falling into this growing ‘underclass’, ‘hard working families’, who are the object of politicians’ blandishments – ‘doing, striving and playing the game,’ as Cameron said recently – are desperate to find a secure position for themselves and their children. Instead, they find themselves climbing a down escalator so that, in a class structure gone pear-shaped, you have to run faster and faster simply to stand still.

Like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who argued that the new globalised, ‘knowledge economy’ meant ‘there was more room at the top’, Milburn also over-emphasises the extent to which ‘professional’ work will increase, arguing it will represent over 80% of new jobs being created in the next decade and that, as a result, approaching 50% of all jobs will fit this category by 2020. Milburn includes in this the growing number of ’para-professional’, low-paid, personal service jobs, like teaching assistants in schools for example, that pay barely half of what their teacher colleagues earn.

It isn’t surprising then, that at a time when the labour market is not generating sufficient opportunities for moving up, the education service is once again under attack. Certainly there should be changes in the way schools, colleges and universities operate but not those promoted by Gove. Rather than producing a ‘meritocracy’ or the ‘open society’ that Nick Clegg rattles on about, the Tories’ reforms will produce an even more exclusive education.

2 thoughts on “Alan Milburn,social mobility and education

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