The sixties, seventies and eighties sprouted many working-class acts that challenged the established order. The working-class voice was ever present in the arts, in media, in politics.
In recent decades that voice has been drowned out.
Despite only 7% of pupils go to private schools, half of UK ministers, senior civil servants, and leading journalists have been privately educated. Judge, military general, doctor and even actor are all ‘posh professions’.
The privately educated are taking the bulk of the top jobs. In part this is because pupils from modest households are less likely to go on to higher education.
But those who do study find that classmates with wealthy parents go on to earn considerably more after graduating from the same degree.
Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, told the Telegraph it’s clear that “the role of family background and networks still play a role in how some graduates perform and progress in their careers.”
Is it impossible for children with a working-class background to succeed in life? Of course not. But parents’ wealth still plays a disproportionately large factor in determining children’s futures.
The government’s response has been to deter the less well-off even more from getting a degree. Its decision to scrap maintenance grants from September 2016 means bright young people whose parents can’t help out financially must either burden a heavy debt or steer clear from university.
Asked about the lack of social mobility, Prime Minister Cameron simply points at the working classes. Apparently it’s their poverty of ambition and not the faulty system that’s to blame.
But the fact of the matter is that Britain isn’t a country of equal opportunities.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university can’t profit from their parents’ networks. And in careers where you’re required to build them through unpaid internships the choice is more debt or change careers.
It is in Britain’s best interests to level the playing field. Higher social mobility lifts up a country’s GDP per capita, OECD research found.
That’s not the only reason.
Rational choice theory says limiting your own choices is irrational. It reduces your welfare. Yet you might say this is exactly what low social mobility does: it limits the country’s choices.
Top jobs don’t necessarily go to the best. They go to the best of a selective group of people that is unrepresentative of the country as a whole.
Another reason why equal opportunities would benefit Britain is so that no group in society is left behind. As the working-class voice is pushed out of the mainstream, this part of society has become more and more isolated.
They are now represented by professional politicians who probably have no idea what a factory looks like from the inside. Newspapers for the most part employ privately educated journos to write their columns. And on the telly they see Old Etonians in roles portraying the “realities” of working-class life.
What’s more, disappointing government spells from both Tories and Labour have now left them less likely to vote. No wonder they continue to be hit by cuts. They are voiceless.
I hate it when politicians use the word “aspiration”. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t aspire to a good life. Rather than telling them to be more aspirational, politicians should make sure there’s something to aspire to.
Actions speak louder than words. The government may tell people all they have to do is “want” a better life, their decision to scrap grants for poorer students tells them the opposite. It tells them to know their place.
Education is the key to remedy inequality’s adverse social and economic side-effects.
As the OECD writes: “the main mechanism through which inequality affects growth is by undermining education opportunities for children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.”
Britain needs to do away with distinguishing between private and public education. Good education shouldn’t be a privilege you have to pay for, it should be available to everyone.
Only if pupils from all backgrounds have access to the same quality of education they’ll move up based on ability rather than family money.
Similarly, higher education should be affordable to all. See it as an investment. If you allow people to move up the ladder they’ll end up contributing more to society. You don’t need an Oxbridge education to capture that logic.
“The factories are closing and the army’s full –
I don’t know what I’m going to do.
But I’ve come to see in the Land of the Free
There’s only a future for the Chosen Few.”
Billy Bragg wrote these lyrics over three decades ago but they’re still highly relevant today.
In 2016 money still largely determines where people end up in life. As long as that doesn’t change, Britain won’t be living up to its potential.
If only the elite didn’t have such poverty of ambition.