Friday, 4 February 2011

The myth of social mobility

BBC 2 screened a documentary on Wednesday, asking "Who gets the best jobs?"

It scarcely revealed anything new or unknown, but that in itself doesn't mean the exercise was not a worthwhile one. Far from it; it showed how much more there is still to do to ensure genuine equality of opportunity. It also highlighted growing social inequalities and the unfortunate truth that social mobility is largely a myth.

So what were the essential findings? In a nutshell, an individual's ability is less of a qualification than money or contacts; that the top professions are disproportionately occupied by those who have been privately educated; in particular, medicine and law are dominated by those from affluent backgrounds - basically, the more money you have and the more privileged you are, the better your life chances. Hardly rocket science, is it? You know, I think I'm getting the hang of this documentary production business.

As some of you may know, I come from a distinctly less than privileged background to put it mildly. In my late teens, I thought I was going up in the world when I moved out of a homeless hostel and into a council flat in Sighthill (I did go up in the world, all the way to the ninth floor!). I'd always been a bright kid and achieved Bs in my Highers (pretty good going for my school, where turning up was something of an achievement), but the culture of hopelessness I was surrounded by meant that I never considered university as an option. My family was not supportive in any case.

However, I did manage to develop aspirations beyond those that most people I know were comfortable with. I studied for a BA in History and then, after some years working in the health sector, successfully applied to study Medicine (as part of a scheme supposedly aimed at "widening access" but did nothing of the sort). My mum and brother didn't care for my new ambitions; my mum felt that I should "just accept my place in life - trying to get above yourself will just get you frustrated"; an understandable attitude based on the gritty realism of persistent rejection. My brother was initially openly hostile, interpreting a desire for self-improvement as a rejection of my "roots" and family - although his attitudes have changed since as he's appreciated what stripping away someoone's aspirations can do to them.

There remains a poverty of ambition - a culture of accepting failure as the norm - that severely limits the opportunities of many young people and which I was desperate to overcome. But of course this is only part of the wider problem. As I found out, aspiration and ability were never going to be enough. The "system" was so biased towards those with means and contacts that there could be said to be an institutional prejudice against those who are less well off. It may not be intentional, but it's certainly there.

Firstly, it was difficult on a social level. Not only was my life experience so different from the average public school educated medical student, I was also a fair bit older. I soon discovered that even being considered for an interview required good personal contacts: relevant work experience within medicine was a pre-requisite. I was lucky in that I'd worked in the NHS and my consultant was happy to recommend me. But how many other disadvantaged would-be medical students can easily find work with a doctor? How many even know a doctor? As a result, the whole process is biased in favour of those with contacts (often whose parents are also members of the medical profession) who are generally drawn from a very narrow section of society. Medicine is a privileged profession and unless action is taken to eradicate inequalities in education will remain so.

Even "widening access" schemes don't always do what they say on the tin. In my case, a degree in a different discipline was a necessary qualification. So, essentially, this ruled out many bright young people who hadn't had the opportunity to study at University in the first instance. An unintended effect of this was that, for me, the very thing that allowed me access to this most privileged of professions, was also the very thing that disqualified me from funding. Because I'd had previous financial help I had to fund my medical degree myself. To the tune of over £3,000 per year in fees, paid in advance - and that doesn't include living costs, etc. It wouldn't have seemed so unfair if fellow students, whose parents had paid £16,000 per year to send them to public school, didn't receive support and help I wasn't eligible for.

"Widening access" schemes can actually be by nature highly discriminatory. For example, Manchester University offered an Access to Medicine course which required its applicants to live in designated areas. So here we had entry by postcode - hardly an inclusive approach. And so far I've also omitted to mention the GAMSAT entry exam, which costs around £350 just to sit. How many underprivileged young people can actually afford that?

So can a boy from Sighthill become a doctor? Maybe, but as far as I know it hasn't happened yet. I had to quit before even being halfway through my studies - the worst part was, when formally leaving the course, the Head of the School told me that "it's a shame you're leaving, as we've seen nothing in your performance that would suggest you wouldn't be a good doctor." And that is supposed to make me feel better? However, I got further than most people expected, which should be a small consolation but actually demonstrates how strongly most of society feel they (and others like them) are excluded from the top professions. As Alan Milburn commented during the documentary, the "not for the likes of me" syndrome is a problem which has never adequately been tackled. Nor is it likely to be in the near future. As a result we can clearly see the existence of two separate worlds with segregated labour markets, and "social distance" becoming ever wider. It is this reality that I can't quite escape from, however much I try, and which BBC2 depicted with surprising accuracy.

I do want to make something of my life, and in recent years have been very tempted by the prospect of internships. For example, I have been advised that to really get ahead in photography, I should apply for intern roles with some London-based companies and prestigious magazines. That would be great, but - sorry, Mr Milburn - this really isn't for the likes of me. I know it now. My mum was right. I just can't take time out of my life to spend a few months in London, working for free. Similarly, to get ahead in politics now it's expected that you take an internship or work for an MP for a while. Again, it's something I simply can't do - for reasons of finance and basic geography.

BBC2 deserve some credit for exploring in some detail the nature of internships and how a system ostensibly allowing those with aspiration the opportunity to gain valuable experience and a "foot in the door" is, in fact, merely allowing big earners to pull away from the rest of us. It allows the buying of advantage. Internships are now becoming a pre-requisite for many jobs, but are in reality only open to those who can afford to spend months working for nothing, and generally only those who live in London or can afford to relocate there. It's pretty near impossible for those of us who live in a council house in Inverclyde!

So, privilege and access to wealth not only buy places at public schools and therefore also the best universities, it also determines who is able to benefit from internships. It's the London-centric nature of the "opportunities" that particularly grinds with me. It seems that a combination of access to wealth and proximity to London is the new currency by which people enter prestigious employment. So much for the notion of meritocracy.

On a slightly different note, the Guardian yesterday reported that the government is cutting all its funding to the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC). This group's aim is, unsurprisingly, increasing female representation in the scientific professions. And that's vital work, because only 12.5% of that workforce is currently female. This follows the decision in November to axe the Women's National Commission, which helped ensure the government took seriously women's interests into account in its decision making. It would appear that, as the government tightens its belt, groups working to advance equality and inclusion will be among the worst hit. The attitude, it seems, is that equality is an admirable objective in times of boom, but can be sidelined when funding is reduced.

This is short-sighted and counter-productive. Alan Milburn argued effectively that it is the fairer societies that prosper economically as well as socially. Fairness and aspiration go together and, when actively encouraged, can yield dividends. We all lose out when so much talent is prevented from fulfilling its potential. The economic growth our country needs is dependent on a new and inclusive approach towards education, research and innovation.

I don't know what all the solutions are. But here's a start. There are significant social and psychological barriers that remain for the less well-off in our society. There have in recent years been some positive steps forward for women and ethnic minorities - this kind of improvement means that Medicine is no longer the preserve of white, middle-class, privately educated men but instead that of just the middle-class and privately educated of all races and genders. The emphasis has to be changed. We have to promote inclusion and tackle inequality in all its forms - not merely where it applies to specified groups. Effort has to be given over to actively supporting disadvantaged people into professions; by this I don't mean ill-conceived "access" courses but a practical agenda to level the playing field from an early an age as possible. Attacking the aspirational deficit and poverty of hope in many of our underprivileged communities would be a real start.

Of course there has to be a lot more done for women and those from ethnic minorities, which remain under-represented in certain professions. But that can not be the whole of any responsible campaign to eradicate social inequalities and facilitate the social mobility Nick Clegg clearly cares to much about. I know of Jo Swinson's praiseworthy "Real Women" campaign, but where is the "Real Unemployed Men from Glasgow Council Estates" campaign helping those with little or no aspiration to develop the self-belief and hope to lead more fulfilling lives? I am also aware of the equally vital Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance, but where the necessary project assisting the underprivileged into political careers? No, I didn't mean internships.

The government has to look at innovative means of empowering talented young people to fulfil their potential and enter the top careers. Whatever my mixed experience of being enabled to study Medicine, it never felt empowering and I was never supported. We don't need patronising, targeted positive discrimination projects which amount to little more than box-ticking exercises - but a means of helping people to help themselves, to open doors that are currently closed to the majority. Of course, changing the profile of a profession takes time and in the case of Medicine any change is welcome; however, it is vital to put forward a coherent, realistic long-term plan at improving social mobility rather than merely advocating a number of short-term measures whose success is often compromised by economic pressures.

Businesses also have a role to play, albeit with support from government. A fairer alternative to internships has to be developed. Admittedly funding is understandably limited, but again it's the long-term approach that will see results. Businesses want to attract the best talent and it is in their interests to move towards a more inclusive approach that rewards talent rather than wealth; they too should be empowered to provide vital and valuable work experience irrespective of an individual's means.

Nick Clegg is right when he talks up the importance of social mobility. But such talk must be matched with a willingness to take action. The cost of not doing so is economic and social stagnation.


Anonymous said...


I don't know you personally but I occsaionally have look at your blog.

I like your style of writing, but this piece is a bit different.

There's a lot more of YOU in this.

That's not a bad thing. It's a very brave thing to be so honest about your own past and personal struggles. Relating your own battles to those of others like you shows real understanding as well as your welcome honesty.

Social mobility is just a buzzword. It has become more clear in recent years that no real progress is being made. That can and hopefully will change especially if more people like you speak out about the realities on the ground facing disadvantaged people.

I didn't see the BBC 2 show I'm afraid. From what you're saying though it looks like there was nothing groundbreaking in it.

Don't get me started on internships. It's modern slavery. You hit the nail on the head with that one. What i don't get is why so many MP's insist on having them.

Andrew said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm pleased this piece struck a chord with you. On internships, however, I'm not going to use the emotive term "slavery" to describe them. There is modern slavery, I agree, but I'm not sure whether that's a fair description of internships. It's a bit more complicated than that.

I can understand why MPs use interns. They have a very limited budget to use on staff. As a result, they often use several volunteers and interns. It is a bit different for MPs running a constituency office on a restricted budget than it is for many of the top London-based businesses who can more than afford to pay staff but prefer to use interns. That's not meant as a defence of internship (which I strongly feel is an unfair system through which to gain work experience), just highlighting a difference between the world of politics and the world of business.