Social mobility: simply ‘fairness-washing’ or a real solution?

by Joseph Markus

Social mobility. What is it and what does it mean?

Well, basically, that individuals and groups of individuals, otherwise suspended within a particular, and apparently fixed, social context, have the opportunity to move up or the risk of moving down. It is, in essence, an intricate and high-stakes game of ‘snakes ‘n’ ladders’.

Our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has been pushing this concept forcefully in speeches to the Sutton Trust, stressing that an open society is one in which people choose their place. Quite right. But is that what he’s advocating?

Recent contributions by members of the Coalition government to this especially fraught area of politics have been (rightly) denounced by members of the left-wing commentariat (George Monbiot, in particular, demolished Michael Gove’s non-committal piece on private schooling). Advice on fairness and equality from this Government—seeking to marry together the contradictory policies of austerity and social mobility—rings somewhat hollow.

And the Liberal Democrats perhaps understandably might want to distance themselves from some of the more unpalatable policies advanced by the government. This provides the context to Mr. Clegg’s launch of a campaign for greater social mobility.

On it’s face an appealing concept, beneath the surface hides an important—and unacknowledged—assumption. This is that mobility is a given and that it is a good thing. To return to my metaphor, the ladders come with the snakes.

To some extent, proponents might argue, snakes are necessary to make the ladders appear more attractive, and to incentivise hard work. The flip side is that we continue to live in a society that continues to look unequal. Mr. Clegg embraces this point when he criticises Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson—authors of The Spirit Level—for placing too much emphasis on equality. He says “reducing inequality is a good and laudable aim. But unfortunately it’s not the straightforward route to social mobility that its proponents suggest”.

That proposition only makes sense if you see equality only in the most circumspect of terms. Otherwise, a full and substantive conception of equality of opportunity easily encompasses what Mr. Clegg defines as social mobility. And why not just use the concept of equality? It’s only been floating around since Aristotle. Perhaps it’s the baggage that comes with embracing equality—a concept gradually pushed out of public-political life, to be replaced by vaguely positive notions of fairness and, now, social mobility—perhaps it comes from a need to keep the Tory-half of government happy, and perhaps from a distinctly liberal political philosophy. It’s difficult to say.

In any event, what is clear is that there are problems with the idea. The first is that, assessed on its merits, social mobility seems unlikely to succeed. Mr. Clegg is said to be “bloody-minded” about challenging vested interests, but we must question how far that will go. Some vested interests, I suspect, will ultimately overpower him or remain in a position of power or dominance until after Mr. Clegg’s brief time in government is over.

What is more, it seems, from the Guardian article reporting the initiative, that the main focal point for the campaign is, alongside a system of indicators of social mobility, a drive to push universities to evaluate the whole candidate and not just the grades. To me it seems as though what Mr. Clegg has proposed has the virtue of giving the impression of doing something significant while in reality ‘fairness-washing’ the grand façade of true equal opportunity.

The problems start earlier than university, if academic learning is the true mark of high mobility, and he does not seem interested to address the huge disparities in the quality of primary and secondary schools (as well as pre-schooling and private schools). There are bigger barriers to mobility than the universities. It should be remembered that Oxford/Cambridge, for example, operates in an imperfect system. It has an obvious desire to recruit the best and so the tendency has been for it to recruit from private schools. Getting government to jump in at the halfway point of a person’s development—at the point of a university application—seems a little late and ignores the previous 18 years (or so) of neglect.

The second problem is linked to the first. It is the point that Mr. Clegg has defined the upward trajectory of the socially mobile as pointing towards Oxford/Cambridge. In that statement he makes a value judgment about what is a socially valuable use of a life. His policy assumes that individuals performing menial work, in supermarkets and on trains, have, in some sense, failed (or have been failed) to achieve a “good level of development” (as he clumsily put it). He makes the assumption that going to university is an objectively better thing than other routes through life.

Another Guardian article, from the same day, reported that ‘Nick Clegg rails against British class snobbery’. To be sure, in some respects that’s probably true. But to some extent he is guilty of a form of doublethink. In placing universities at one end of a socially mobile spectrum and everything else at the other he embodies precisely the form of ‘class’ snobbery against which he spoke out.

Fundamentally the concept of social mobility—as well other more basic ideas—requires that some people do professional jobs and others don’t. What Mr. Clegg omits to mention is that all these jobs have some degree of social utility. All of them are valuable in their own way. But this value is rarely, if ever, rewarded with appropriate pay or treatment by those who make use of the services provided. It is this aspect of class snobbery that deserves to be eradicated. (A good symbol for the campaign could be Mr. Clegg swapping his job as Deputy PM to work in a supermarket…)

The idea of social mobility, while perhaps improving the prospects of a few pupils, does little to usefully change that self-image of our society. It promises a particular form of conceptual retrenchment in that the image of a hierarchically-ordered society remains and, in fact, is strengthened by an attempt to push people up the ‘ladders of opportunity’.

Mr. Clegg might mean well, but social mobility is, in general terms, not a helpful idea. We don’t need a replacement for equality just yet.

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