From education to employment

FE News Reporter Vijay Pattni Looks at the Futu

As a new series of the ultimate in trash television prepares its latest onslaught on the boundaries of acceptable human behaviour, we are reminded of its sheer potency for the British psyche.

Take Chantelle Houghton, for example. Enters the famed Big Brother house and leaves as eventual winner; launches own television show; marries Brit-band frontman; writes autobiography, all before the age of 25. Whilst flicking through the latest copy of Heat magazine, it is easy to become seduced by the trash rag-to-riches story. Ms. Houghton, the ultimate modern incarnation of twenty-first century Britain, depicts the dream for many a town girl, hoop earrings and strappy white stilettos complete. A “nobody” who became a somebody, joining the sniffed-at ranks of z-list celebrity.

The Beginnings

Yet however crass the story may be, does it exemplify the extent of social mobility evident in this country? Wikipedia explains it as “the degree to which, in a given society, an individual’s social status can change throughout the course of his or her life, or the extent to which that individual’s offspring and subsequent generations move up and down the class system.” And following the Thursday 11th May conference commemorating Michael Young’s contribution to twentieth century’s leading social philanthropy, has his dream of an egalitarian vision been wiped with the new Blairite agenda of a dystopian nightmare?

Opinion, dishearteningly, is clear on one point. “Social mobility is declining,” explains David Willets MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills and guest speaker at this years annual Geoffrey Hubbard Memorial Lecture. “Education is the key to opening up opportunities, yet we are becoming less socially mobile.” Indeed, this concept of social mobility is widely regarded as important, as a lack of it generally implies an inequality of opportunity. But while Mr Willets highlights education as a key, he goes on to suggest that it is the culprit for creating an unequal society. “The past 20 years have seen higher earnings for graduates, yet the differences still remain. The expansion of Higher Education has helped the decline of social mobility.”

Key Tenets

Another key element is the oft-criticised nation Labour has carved out during their time in office. A key tenet of the Conservative party manifesto for the 2005 election centred on respect. Respect for the country’s institutions; respect for its laws; respect for its traditions and practices. While Labour where undoubtedly given a “bloody nose” at the polling booths, they unanimously adopted this sentiment wholesale after realising that this culture of disrespect had spiralled completely out of control. This is identified as a key barrier to the increase in social mobility.

A 2001 study by the Performance and Innovation Unit at the Cabinet Office identified that strategies adopted by families including values, behaviours and networks all contributed to the access for opportunity. This is given no clearer amplification than in the statuesque rise of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, cutting off vital links in the chain of mobility and hampering the future contacts that increase equality between the classes. So how do we attempt to amend the current trend of a socially immobile Britain?

While studies have proven that our poverty rates have been consistently higher than some European counterparts, and the gap between rich and poor increasing annually, surely there must be a method to reverse the trend? “In reality, the idea of meritocracy is potent but achieving it is more difficult,” explains Mr. Willets. And so we come to the famed point of contention for the late Lord Young of Dartington. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, “The Rise Of The Meritocracy”,” he begins in an interview with The Guardian, 2001. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation and found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.”

A Dangerous Arrogance

Described as a situation whereby individuals form their own social classes according to their merit, i.e. education, skills and ambition, as opposed to the old methods of class distinction such as wealth. Michael Young had always contended that this new social class bred a dangerous arrogance that increasingly ostracised the misfortunate, as it directly rewarded intelligence and diligence, yet still maintained a fundamentally unequal society. He did accept that a weak form of meritocracy was beneficial. “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit,” he argued.

Yet the dangers are inherent: “It is the opposite when those judged to have merit harden into a new social class without room in it for others. With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the majority that fail to shine.” Increasing calls from industry lambasting graduates pouring out of universities with no real transferable skills only exacerbates the problem, clearly underpinning Young’s theory of a dangerous new social class in the forming. With so much attention now being focused on it, FE has predictably been left to pick up the pieces.

So what of the fix? Perhaps, as Mr Willets suggested, we take a leaf out of Michael Young’s book and prepare for the future. “High on anyone’s list of post-war intellectuals is Michael Young,” articulates the MP. “He had a powerful moral vision. His was an egalitarian vision ““ something we now call widening society’s participation.” What about a possible thinly veiled message to the present administration languishing in the press? “He didn”t try to pass laws to make us good, but set up institutions.” As Mr Lincoln suggested in his Gettysburg address, an institution of the public, by the public and for the public, if you will.

Therefore, while Tony Blair may have removed the term from his populist vocabulary, we should be wary of David Cameron’s recent use of the term, when defending his party’s strong reservoir of women MP’s. “I don”t support all-women shortlists because I think it is a step too far for a party that is meritocratic.”

Vijay Pattni

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