From education to employment

Tribute to Michael Young Warmly Welcomed at NEC Event

“Whatever field he tilled, he sowed dragon’s teeth and armed men seemed to spring from the soil to form an organisation and correct the abuses or stimulate the virtues he had discovered”. So quoted Noel Annan, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of London.

To further recognise this contribution to social policy in the twentieth century, delegates spanning the educational spectrum braved the all-encompassing heat and converged in the centre of London to commemorate this leading philanthropist and much-revered social philosopher, Michael Young. Held at the British Library on the 11th May 2006, the lecture entitled “Meritocracy and Mobility: Our debt to Michael Young”, was delivered with aplomb by Conservative MP David Willets, whose party is currently relishing the public lambasting Labour is receiving.


Chaired by Dr. Ann Limb, of the National Extension College’s (NEC’s) Board of Trustees who organised the event, the lecture was a temperate and measured exercise in consummate professionalism. As Dr. Limb explained: “Michael was the first Chair of the NEC and remained a trustee when he died. We wanted to instigate this lecture to remember his thoughts.”

His thinking was especially poignant for another of the NEC’s representatives. Delivering an exceptionally personal story, Alison West, the Chief Executive, explained how she and her siblings came from modest backgrounds and graduated from university, receiving numerous paper qualifications, yet not one of their children achieved even a small percentage of this. “We went from working class back to working class in three generations.”

With this human element painting a clear picture of the issue, Mr Willets MP was then empowered to address the question of whether Michael Young’s philosophy still held fortitude, and if these problems of “Meritocracy”, as he called it, still existed. “In reality,” the tranquil MP explained, “the idea of “Meritocracy” is potent, but achieving it is more difficult. There is the assumption that education is the culprit”. Indeed, he explained that throughout the past twenty years, graduates from universities have enjoyed consistently higher salaries. “Yet the differences still remain. The expansion of Higher Education has helped the decline of “Social Mobility”,” he continued.

Social Mobility

An important concept for any liberal and equal society, “Social Mobility” describes movement of the individual between different social groups. As pointed out by leading professors and social scientists, a lack of social mobility implies inequality of opportunity because only selected members of society would then be able to improve their economic position.

Clearly recognising the disparity, Mr Willets explained: “Well – intentioned policies have widened the gap, making Britain a more unequal and less mobile society”. So how do we fix it then? “What we might do is to develop a government policy agenda that shows we can make Britain a more mobile society.” And in particular, “There is a crucial role of reading in the expansion of social mobility: Learn to read, then read to learn.”

Yet this insistence on education is clearly a double-edged sword, as he understands. “There is the assumption that education is the culprit,” he said, but also saying: “Education is the key to opening up opportunities.” Evidently deserving of his MP tag, he touches on feminism as an issue in the decline of social mobility. “We are feminising the environment in which children grow up. Boys are desperately short of powerful male role models. Increasing equality between the sexes has increased inequalities in social class,” he said. However, he also commented: “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.”

Interestingly, Conservative policies on education, while concealed throughout the hour-long speech, became apparent during the brief question and answer session. In connection with the recent howls from industry regarding over-qualified employees with no transferable work skills, a question from the audience did at least provoke an honest reaction to our embattled qualification system. “Do you agree with the notion that governments have supplanted merits with bits of paper?” To which the assured MP responded, emphatically, “Indeed, there is evidence that some National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ’s) command no premium in the labour market.”

And when questioned on the capacity of Faith Schools to increase social exclusion and become more socially divisive, he responded: “We would like to see Churches take the lead to help inclusion between classes.” Yet political allegiances suddenly vanished on one point. In a predominantly, and predictably, left-leaning audience, a question concerning better means of picking up the failures of education sparked a raucous response, inviting the otherwise serene Mr Willets to engage his most vehement support.

“We will have no further reorganisation!”

Vijay Pattni

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