One of the main reasons why I have always supported the Conservative Party is because, going right back to the 1950s, I perceived it as the main supporter of meritocracy and upwards social mobility; and the Labour Party, as the main enemy here, bent on levelling down rather than up.
In my youth it was the Conservative Party, on the back of the Butler Education Act, which opened up the Grammar Schools to bright children of all backgrounds, and particularly the less privileged, to get a first class education and so “climb up” through good universities. It was also the Conservatives who opened up entry to bright children from all backgrounds to many of Britain’s excellent Independent Schools, through the Direct Grant Scheme and, subsequently, the Assisted Places Scheme.
Back in 2005 when giving the Annual CPS 1900 Club Lecture, I argued that the Conservative Party should offer tangible and clear commitments to increase meritocratic social mobility which declined under the Labour Government; and that this might start with a powerful message, committing again, to provide the funding for anyone capable of meeting the standards to be able to go to Independent Schools on State Scholarships.
I believe it is unwise, both morally and socially, that only those who can afford to pay can now go to Independent Schools. I argued that the citizens of the suburbs of Manchester, London or Birmingham would be more interested in the Conservatives if again they promised to enable bright children living in these cities to be able to go, respectively, to Manchester Grammar School, St Paul’s or King Edward’s Birmingham, irrespective of their means.
Given the deterioration of educational standards in State primary schools in many parts of the country, this is now arguably the priority area to address. As everyone knows, what is needed, in clichéd language, is effective teaching of the “3 Rs” and the provision of adequate discipline.
It is a denigration of UK education policy that the proportion of Oxbridge undergraduates from State Schools is less today than it was, in my time, in the 1960s.
Yet Government appears blind to the causes. The Coalition’s proposals for admission quotas with lower academic standards for candidates from State schools are academically unwise, potentially unfair and fail to address the real problem. What is needed is excellent State Schools both at primary and secondary school levels – called, where they continue to exist, Grammar Schools.
But it matters little what they are called: the key point is that there is the obvious need for selective intake to secondary schools which provide an excellent academic education, particularly in areas where there is a concentration of under privileged households – as well as bringing back State Bursaries to academic private schools. These measures would ensure that bright young people from less privileged backgrounds could compete for entrance to our top universities on a level playing field with bright candidates from academic fee paying schools.
What a disappointment, therefore, was Nick Clegg’s recent speech about improving social mobility, which ignored these fundamental points. One sound point was the reference to adding 250,000 apprenticeships, rightly addressing a different path of upward social mobility. Otherwise, it proposed yet more gimmicks with its “undefined” pupil premium reference and the proposed creation of a new statutory “Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission”, likely to waste yet more time and tax payers’ money.
It also included an ill-informed attack on unpaid student internships and the now habitual mantra, attack on the City – “who you know is increasingly becoming more important than what you know” when it comes to securing a job in the City. Clegg appears to be unaware of the special schemes which firms such as KPMG have operated for several years, not just to recruit talent from less privileged backgrounds, but also to help them with finance for their university education. He also ignores the fact that many talented people from East London, without university degrees, continue to find paths open to them to rise up in the City of London, where they have the talent.
The talent pool for the City, moreover, has gone global, except to the extent which Government seeks to frustrate this! The days when jobs are awarded on the basis of parentage and string pulling are long gone. What matters is talent. Specifically with regard to internships, the Social Market Foundation reports from its polling that 57% of young people from under-privileged socio-economic groups are not put off from a career that requires unpaid internships; compared with 59% from affluent socio-economic groups, who are so put off!
Clegg would better stop moralising about territories where he is not adequately informed, and focus on Government improving educational attainment in State primary schools and restoring selective entry senior schools which, as in the past, would provide an excellent secondary education for talented children from under-privileged backgrounds.
But Clegg did make one extremely sound comment – “it’s the most natural feeling in the world for any parent to want their children to have the opportunities they didn’t”. For me, at the heart of what the Conservative Party stands for, is encouraging and helping parents to “do the best for their children” – which, of course, inter-relates to Conservative policies on the family. All the data shows that children have a much better start in life, no matter what their socio-economic background, where they have two parents, preferably cemented by the marriage contract.
Finally, the point needs making that it is invariably the lower income portion of the “middle classes” who are the most aspirational and the greatest source of dynamic upwards mobility. India is now surging forward on the back of a 200 million strong middle class, eager for a good education and advancement for their children. Even in the slums, parents pay to send their children to small private schools, because they are so much better than the State schools.
It is this very group of society which I perceive the Coalition Government is in danger of discriminating against. The rich can afford to pay higher university fees and there will be financial support from both the tax payer and the universities for the poor; but no help for those whose parents simply cannot afford to finance their children, yet are not poor enough to qualify for financial support. As much as anything else, this will constitute anti-upward social mobility policy.
My vision is for a society where those who are prepared to work hard and to get skilled, get on, assisted by educational opportunity. It is particularly noticeable how successful have been the immigrant Indian communities, especially from East Africa, where parents provide the stable home backgrounds, the drive and support for their children to progress. The State cannot, with the best will in the world, compensate for the absence of these crucial ingredients of upwards social mobility.