Britain Should Concentrate More on Social Equality Than on Social Mobility

The story of Ishak Ayiris has much to commend it. Last year this 15-year-old son of Ethiopian immigrants from London’s East End won a scholarship to Eton.

He told the Daily Mail: “When my dad found out he said he had two dreams in my life - coming to England, and for his son to go to the same school as the Prime Minister. Both of these dreams have come true.”

The Mail was not the only paper to cover this.

Almost all national titles, local London papers and the BBC delighted in the story of a boy from Forest Gate Community School in Newham traveling across the city to go to Britain’s most famous public school.

Leave aside for moment the question of whether Eton actually provides what could be called an education  - is it an education to be schooled with a male-only elite from limited social backgrounds chosen, primarily, not on academic achievement, but on the size of your parents’ bank balance? What was troubling about this story was the implication that success is judged by your ability to attend a fee-paying school.

The unspoken implication of those pushing social mobility is That they want more people to be like them

However pleased we are for Ishak and his family, he encapsulates all that is wrong with those who champion social mobility.

In recent years politicians from all the main parties have voiced concerns about the need for greater social mobility. They would be foolish to do otherwise given the weight of evidence showing the grip of private schools and Oxbridge has strengthened rather than weakened in the last few decades.

The figures are well rehearsed but their familiarity does not mean they are not worth repeating. The law, media, politics, medicine and business all remain exclusive professions.

Only 7% of the population go to fee-paying schools but their alumni account for 24% of vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of senior medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 54% of top journalists and 70% of High Court judges.

According to the Sutton Trust, 31% of the UK’s powerbrokers, whatever they may be, went to Oxford or Cambridge, and 44% attended private schools.

It is blatantly wrong that so many people, particularly those from working class and/or black and minority ethnic communities, are excluded from these leading professions. And it is also clearly detrimental to our society that a few, schooled with the similar values and from similar backgrounds, wield so much power and influence.

To challenge those who seek to redress this balance, such as Alan Milburn, the chair of the government's social mobility and child poverty commission, risks appearing ungrateful and at worse, rejecting the need for such work.

But no cause is so righteous that it should be above criticism.

The unspoken implication of those politicians pushing social mobility is they want more people to be like them.

The phrase itself is erroneous. Mobility would imply that people can move from one social and employment circle to another; that a bricklayer could become a lawyer and a lawyer could become a bricklayer.

Instead, social mobility is viewed only as a one-way street. A more accurate description would be social elitism. For that is what they are prescribing.

They want everyone to become a judge or a doctor because those are the professions regarded as the pinnacles of achievement.

This blindly ignores the fact that there are only a finite number of lawyers, journalists, doctors and politicians necessary for a society to function.

And it is deeply insulting to those who fail to break into that circle. We need people to pick fruit, cut hair, stack shelves, fix cars, drive buses and sweep roads.

Rather than trying to perpetuate elites we should be trying to eradicate them

All of these professions should be valued but they are automatically denigrated by the decision to place a premium on certain other careers, which, incidentally, happen to be the careers of those most exercised by social mobility.

What is needed is not social flexibility but social equality, where a barista is held in the same regard as a barrister and the person who sterilises the scalpel is recognised as much as the surgeon who wields it.

Rather than trying to perpetuate elites we should be trying to eradicate them. Yet this is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a society which relishes class divisions, delights in having a hereditary head of state and feasts on programmes such as Downton Abbey that reinforce a caste system.

Britain has also become ghettoised and divided. In London, for instance, two-thirds of the population (excluding council tenants) has a university degree.

Income disparity and extortionate house prices have made our society less mixed. Where streets were once shared by doctors, cab drivers, self-employed builders, teachers and coppers, they now are populated by those of similar professions, mindsets and wealth.

This is not to say we should abandon the challenge to make well-paid jobs more representative. But it is to argue that those who care most about social mobility would be better spending their time trying to dismantle the class and income divides.

Then one day we may read of the heartening story of an Eton schoolboy who decided he would get a more rounded education by attending a comprehensive in East London.

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror.

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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