From pushy parents to tax evading elites, Sutton Trust CEO Lee Elliot Major introduces the ten enemies of social mobility, set out in his new book published today.
“It’s not a sin!” I said to the BBC journalists interviewing me. They were grilling me about the booming private tutoring industry that is creating a gaping education divide outside schools. Yes, I had to admit, I too am a parent who has paid private tutors to help my children. All in moderation of course – nothing excessive that would stress them out. It’s only human to want the best for your children. Even if you are a social mobility campaigner.
We all agree that success should be down to hard work and talent rather than where you happen to be born. Yet we are all enemies of social mobility to some extent – particularly if we believe our own offspring should somehow be exempt from being downwardly mobile.
But how far do you go? Good friends have pushed the boundaries of acceptability: temporarily renting houses near sought-after schools; winning school places for their children through obscure legal technicalities in admissions rules; tutoring their teenagers to the ends of the Earth; pestering friends to give their children internships.
Sharp elbowed parents aren’t the only ones to blame for our rigid society. In our book Social Mobility and Its Enemies, co-authored with Stephen Machin, we discuss many barriers (see below for the list of ten enemies): exploitative employers failing to invest in their staff; the rigged academic race only the middle classes can win; and our detached ruling elites, vowing to work for the many, but pursuing policies for the few.
And then there are gaping inequalities in earnings and wealth. In high inequality Britain, the loss in income from slipping down the social ladder is severe, making parents more anxious about their children’s futures. Meanwhile middle class second home buy-to-renters are blocking access for the next generation trying to get a foothold on the housing ladder.
It’s perfectly natural to be a pushy parent. But in the zero sum game of social mobility we trample over the prospects of the less fortunate when fighting for the futures of own families. The awkward truth is that our individual gains may be a collective loss for society.
by Lee Elliot Major, Stephen Machin
Published by Penguin
Social mobility’s enemies
Elites looking down on the rest of us from the upper rungs of society’s ladder will use all their know-how and resources to prevent their children sliding down the ladder and being overtaken by upstarts from below. They have the power to put you in your place. Hoarders will claim it’s all fair game – just part of the modern ‘meritocracy’.
Sharp elbowed parents who will stoop to the lowest tactics to leapfrog less fortunate children in the education queue. In the zero sum game of relative social mobility it all means yet one more dislodged child from a poorer family.
Just because you flourished at Oxbridge doesn’t mean it’s the place we should all to aspire to. Our education system has become increasingly academic. Every year we brand 100,000s of children failures. Yet it is us – elites transfixed by academic status – who are failing them.
Society is not short on advocates claiming to have the simple solution to Britain’s low social mobility. But dig beneath the surface and the arguments crumble away. Life – and the transmission of characteristics from one generation to the next – is just not that simple.
Private schools have been spectacularly successful at producing our social elites over successive generations. The problem is that they are only accessible to the small minority able to afford their fees. Meanwhile if you ever wanted to create a university admissions system that acts to confuse, baffle and alienate the non-privileged outsiders, then we have surely created it.
Britain’s low social mobility reveals that parents matter more than anything else. Many children lack the basics – food, a place to sleep – and a stable, consistent and nurturing environment. At the other extreme tiger parents are driven by a neurotic fear that no matter what they have done, it is never quite enough to maximize their children’s talents.
Extreme inequality of incomes when children are younger leads to greater inequality of opportunity. This is not just about the impact of inequality of income but of wealth, housing, social attitudes and political polarization. We have reached a tipping point: those on the lower rungs of the ladder are peering up at such an impossibly steep climb that they would rather step off than step up.
Too many employers focus on extracting quick profits from cheap and flexible labour. We need to restore dignity and security at work, while recognizing jobs will become more flexible. We also need to pay decent wages. Bad business means Britain is losing the race for skilled workers in the global economy.
Our wealthy elites hide away their fortunes in offshore tax havens. It cannot be fair that a teacher on £30,000 a year will pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than a billionaire gaining £300 million a year from global investments.
10. Detached elites
Low mobility’s legacy is a self-interested and self-perpetuating elite. It is also an ineffectual one for the rest of society. Socially diverse elites make for better decision makers. Our elected rulers vow to work for the many not the few, but pursue policies for the few and not the many. Improving social mobility at the top would unlock parts of society that other policies are unable to reach.