There have been a lot of comments about the return to power and prominence of “the posh”, particularly since the Prime Minister and many members of the British Government have been educated at public schools and Oxbridge. Aditya Chakraborty in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section has written on this and the BBC documentary by Andrew Neil at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/posh-back-in-charge?showallcomments=true#end-of-comments .
More recently there have been reports about worsening social mobility and a growing gap between graduates and non-graduates and their future earnings (for example see http://bit.ly/qRigJC ).
I think the phenomenon makes for interesting reading but is a little misleading – even at the most notorious culprits, Eton and Oxford, the numbers and proportions of alumni going on to positions of power are relatively small. Each year out of the 2,000 or so graduates from Oxford only a couple or so will go on to become an MP. The proportions are likely to be statistically insignificant even if the cumulative effect is that Parliament at any one time may have over a hundred Oxbridge graduates in it. As an Oxford graduate my recollection is that “hacks” – students from whatever background who devoted large parts of their student days towards politics or journalism – were generally derided by their contemporaries. The networking opportunities available were shunned by the vast majority to create small cliques of people who wanted to get on in those fields and who by and large were desperate to widen the number of people doing it rather than to discourage them. Exclusion was social and from the outside of the cliques – discouragement of tentative hackery by “ordinary” students and ostracism of those who had committed to it or were perceived to have been tempted.
In an environment which selected largely the nerdiest ones from school, it was a chance for those former nerds to find themselves in the majority and to create new minorities of ubernerds in the context of university activities. This was not just for the political and journalist hacks but also, ironically, for the academically-minded who would be classed as “spods”.
However, broadening out from this, there is a problem about how society has developed to favour those who network. A couple of modern developments have unintentionally made things harder for those from ordinary backgrounds to get on generally rather than just in the special atmosphere of Oxbridge Quads and Courts.
I leave aside the move from selective to comprehensive education for the moment as I think the other developments are more significant if also more opaque.
One is the increased focus on qualifications and the expansion of the numbers of people gaining the higher ones.
Previously, it was possible to access most careers without having reams of paper qualifications or the very highest grades. There was a spectrum of qualifications at 16 which were readily comparable and which all were sufficient to enable entry into training and further study of different sorts. Going back to as late as the late 80s having 4 CSEs at Grade 3 would do to get into a skilled trade, having a couple of Grade 1s in key subjects like Maths or English would put you into contention for white collar work in banks and offices where many started at 16 and where most managers would have been no more qualified on entry. The type of school you had studied at would not be so big a deal for getting into good work at 16 at that level of qualification. Having O levels would place you in good stead for more intellectually demanding work like being a trainee journalist, accountant, surveyor etc. Having a couple of low grade A levels would place you in contention for management training. If you wanted a practical career like engineering it would be enough to get you on to HND courses to have had one or two relevant A levels, similarly to do the Teaching Certificate. Few did degrees but they were genuinely the passport to the higher professions or for the luxury of study for its own sake prior to competing with those with fewer qualifications but 3-5 years of work experience.
Now, qualifications below A level are largely worthless in themselves. There are few skilled jobs available to those with just GCSEs or A levels and certainly few opportunities to get on the ladder of management training outside the uniformed civil and military services. Degrees are the norm for those entry level positions but whereas in the past the level and grade of a public qualification was important, the shifting of the point of employment selection to graduates means that employers have to discriminate on the basis of the perceived value of the university attended and the broader merits of applicants outside their qualifications just to make recruitment manageable..
The impact of this has been to make it essential for individuals to be able to differentiate themselves by means other than their qualifications when in the past, qualifications could be used as a helpful proxy for candidates’ relative merits.
Whereas in the past schools could provide a good education by enabling their pupils to get appropriate grades now they all need to push towards getting their pupils to university just to get them into the mix for jobs at 21 and there is a need for those pupils to somehow develop networking skills and be willing to take unpaid internships.
Accepting that comprehensives have not harmed the academic achievements of those who would in the past have gone to grammar schools and even that they have raised the attainment of those who would have gone to secondary moderns (at least for the sake of argument) the problem has been that the post 92 (and particularly the post 97) focus on Higher Education as a goal has shifted the path to adult success. While there were multiple paths to successful adult careers and jobs a comprehensive system might have fitted children to these multiple paths. The narrowing down of post-16 options to a single highly favoured graduate path has had the effect of negating the value of comprehensive education by designing in presumed failure for those who don’t progress to degree level study.
Andrew Neil’s view that the loss of the grammar schools has set social mobility back is thus only coincidentally correct – it is the loss of grammar schools combined with remodelling society to favour precisely the sort of attainment that grammar schools focused on that is the problem. The 80s were not great times for public and private schools – they were a time when the “role models” and economic success stories were not aristocrats and the upper middle classes but barrow boys making a mint in the City and skilled working class people getting to own their own homes and businesses. Being versed in the Classics and setting yourself up to be a salaried professional meant falling behind the lifestyles of the Loadsamoney generation. Making higher education the goal for two or three times as many as previously experienced it gave private schools the chance to offer what the grammar schools used to and thereby find a new role and prominence.
The other development that paradoxically harms social mobility is the advance and ubiquity of social media. This has meant that the standard and quality of “networking” that is needed to get on is radically greater than a generation or two ago. Even at public schools and Oxbridge historically, the proportions of students who had family and friends connections were fairly low so the unconnected were in the majority at both and had to build connections themselves to the extent necessary. In most careers outside politics, the necessary extent was low.
Now, every young person (and many not so young people) is continuously networking through facebook, graduating onto twitter and linkedin. Who knows who and public recommendations (or likes) proliferate. There’s so much networking “noise” because making a twitter connection (etc) is too easy. Only those who have the rare good fortune of coming from the right family backgrounds can get the real networking relationships of value unless they are lucky. Standing out used to be relatively easy – not so much needed to be done past a bit of persistence and a thick enough skin to be a “hack” whether at university or through a trade union or even just by writing to people. Now everyone can and many do have access to the great and the good they are paradoxically further away from being noticed as individuals. So it is inevitable that even those leaders who bemoan the lack of diversity or social mobility will turn to those that they know personally.
The real problem is, how can things realistically be changed? Perhaps we are already seeing the first steps. Some large accountancy firms have responded to the rise in tuition fees by moving their job application stage to before University and offering to pay university fees and maintenance. This may start to replicate itself as a practice across other areas of employment to bring opportunity back to younger people based on their potential – a revival of the entry point to management being at 18. This would also enable teenagers to have a more realistic view of the impact of further study rather than buying into a narrative of degree=higher earning power for all graduates and blindly following that path. Choosing to do a degree without employer sponsorship would mean making a real choice that a degree was still going to be of value to the individual student rather than the default position to enable them to apply for a job in the future.
The move towards favouring a narrowing of the curriculum so that more students do more traditional subjects at GCSE may also help by making qualifications more readily comparable. The proliferation of new subjects and qualifications with nominally equal value has not worked because they are rightly or wrongly still perceived as having lower value. Changing those attitudes has proved too difficult and is perhaps not really worth doing. If Media Studies et al are of equal value then why should modern languages or even history and geography be considered “too hard” or “not relevant enough” for the same students?