22.7.09

SOCIAL MOBILITY

I have a feeling I know something that few investment bankers, fewer politicians and, almost certainly, no judges know: There is a whole world out there.

Growing up in a socially mobile family, I felt neither included nor excluded. I felt I had a right to talk to anyone. I could empathise and, through my own broad life experience, find common ground.

Perhaps as the grandson of a shoe repairer, whose three children became an accomplished electrical engineer, a multilingual, international schoolteacher and a diplomat, I should know something about social mobility.

In Britain, just rated country with the world's worst social mobility, except for the United States, the topic's barely gained attention.

This might be because the report reveals as a crashing failure decades of Conservative and Labour policy. My father and his two siblings were educated in selective grammar schools in the 1950s.

INSULAR AND PAMPERED

Except for Northern Ireland and the English County of Kent, these schools which streamed children according to their interests and their abilities, have been largely broken up.

No issue has been a more permanent fixture of Labour policy than promoting one-size-fits-all comprehensive schooling and the hatred of grammar schools. The Conservatives themselves presided over the axeing of more grammar schools than Labour. Those who can afford it increasingly buy better education for their children.

But social mobility is also ignored because it's outside the comfort zone of modern British professionals. Unlike earlier generations who did national service or came from diverse backgrounds, rubbing up against people of all types from all places, modern Britons are an insular, pampered lot.

Insular in their knowledge of their own society, let alone the world.

When I asked a young diplomat if he could imagine a cobbler's son working alongside him, he was categoric. No way! It was beyond his comprehension.

The down side is not just thwarted ambition or depriving the economy of skills. It's also something less tangible which makes society richer, open to new ideas, more experimental.

NARROW ECONOMIC CLASS

When an acquaintance crowed about an amazing trip across Africa, with tales of campfire dinners, gaped at by locals, I asked had she spoken to them. Of course not! Why would she! The trip revolved around familiar faces and music from home.

As for journalists, when I hear BBC foreign correspondents pitying Russians because most choose to shop in Moscow's (wonderful) open air food markets instead of supermarkets, I know these guys have a sad, limited view of the world.

The BBC works hard to put different coloured faces on the telly. However, from their accents and mannerisms, they are indistinguishable: products of the same narrow economic class. Rather than more diverse, the views reflected on the BBC have become more homogenous since I worked there.

So why should a report from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, as Simon Heffer calls it in the Telegraph, ruffle any perfectly gelled feathers among Britain's penguins.

You can't logically blame societal change for the lack of mobility in society, can you?

THAT'S ELITIST

What about teachers. I seem to remember teachers and others being rather vocal in their hatred of the grammar schools.

Once, at a meeting to decide how to mark the centenary of Coventry Trades Council, a trades unionist suggested encouraging a debate between local schools.

Not one, but two teachers jumped up simultaneously. "You can't have debates," they said. "That's elitist".

"What's elitist about motivating and uplifting your fellow workers through the power of words," I said. "Would you call the leaders of the General Strike elitist?"

Sad to say, the teachers couldn't bring themselves to answer.

I can hear a similar silence now.

Edit: 1/10/2009 About a week or so after I wrote this, Jeff Randall in the Telegraph wrote an even stronger article.