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World

June 2, 2016

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Social mobility is about freeing poor kids to ‘compete’

Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, is rarely accused of humility. One of George Osborne’s coterie of clever young protégés, he got his safe Conservative seat in Parliament in 2010 aged 31 and a place at the Cabinet table five years later.

Yet even a man so blessed with self-confidence might be feeling slightly chastened after being publicly spanked by both the head of his old school and the provost of Eton.

Young Matt got six of the best for his suggestion that employers should ask job applicants if they went to an independent school, as part of David Cameron’s drive to collect data on, and ultimately increase, social mobility.

 The need to increase Britain’s social mobility – someone’s capacity to end up in a higher (or lower) socio-economic group than their parents thanks to talent and effort rather than birth – is almost universally accepted in politics today.

Orthodoxy suggests that mobility is falling and poor children are more likely to end up as poor adults than ever before. But, like any consensus, this should be challenged, especially by those (like me) inclined to believe it.

One common error is to compare the current situation with the (slightly mythologised) decades after the Second World War, when grammar schools propelled poor, clever kids into middle class occupations.

That did happen, but it was probably more about absolute than relative social mobility: wider economic change meant both national wealth and the middle class expanded rapidly. A rising tide lifted all boats.

It’s also far from clear that Britain’s social mobility is much worse than those of comparable economies.

A Stanford University study last year demonstrated that in the US, a nation founded on the ideal of the self-made man, the biggest determinant of someone’s income is how much money their parents made. Some experts also challenge the widely-held notion that British mobility has fallen.

Peter Saunders at Sussex University calculates that people born in in 1970 were no less socially mobile than those born in the 1950s.

Around 40 per cent of all British children now go on to university, but scarcely 13 per cent of white working class ones do so

Those dates point to the biggest problem: time lags. By definition, you have to wait a lifetime to know which socio-economic class any given child ends up in. Many studies that underpin today’s debate use data about people born in 1970.

Policies that will affect today’s school children are based on the experiences of 46-year-olds. And this is where Hancock’s focus on job applicants’ backgrounds risks going wrong.

People in the workplace today are the products of systems and policies in place years and even decades ago. Bluntly, there’s not much today’s government can do to change the consequences of past policies, short of quotas and affirmative action.

Eton’s Lord Waldegrave fears that Cameron’s “Life Chances” agenda is a prelude to just such “social engineering”: fixing the game of life against private school pupils. But this isn’t about fixing the game or seeking a different score. It’s just about making sure that there are more players on the field to compete. 

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