The Glass Ceiling

>I happened to hear Alan Milburn on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, talking about the report of the committee investigating access to high status jobs (of which more here). And never have I heard such an arse-covering, sophistic apologia as what he actually said.

The committee, of which Milburn was chair, has expressed concern that low levels of social mobility have prevented children from what used to be called working class (now just ‘disadvantaged’) backgrounds from gaining access to better paid and more high-skill work. It’s interesting that Milburn himself is hardly from a privilged background himself , but seems unable to see the main source of the problem: the education system itself and the systems to which it is umbilically tied.

Successive governements since the 1980’s have attempted, with no success at all, to widen access to the so-called ‘better’ jobs to those of us who, in earlier times, may have been thought of as unwashed plebs, the malodorous hoi polloi. Milburn talked about the paucity of ambition and opportunity in those schools near the bottom, but whose fault is that?

The drive to 50% participation in HE has had a poisonous effect. Yes, there are more people with degrees now, but that has simply led to requirements inflation in the workplace. When I left school it was perfectly possible to apply for Executive Officer (EO) grades in the civil Service with 2 A Levels. I knew people who did. Try doing it without a degree now. Where did the 50% target come from? An arbitrary target that seemed to appear almost from thin air when Kenneth Baker was Secretary of State for Education and has not been disavowed until now, it seems..

The 1992 reform of the university system hasn’t helpd either. Everyone knows rhere is still grade and institution snobbery rife. A degree at a new university simply isn’t worth the same as one from somewhere older. Anyone who thinks this isn’t true is just kidding themselves. Try going to an interview and saying your degree is Wolverhampton, or Sunderland, or DeMontfort and compare that to Oxbridge, Durham, Bristol, Imperial. The branding sells. It may not even be fair, but it’s still true. We now have what amounts to a comprehensive university system and no one dares to say it. The result is a system where privilege and influence becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer places and the barriers to entry get higher and higher.

So, where does the problem start? Well, in leaving the poorest areas to hang when employement collapses. Where are the biggest pockets of non-particiption and dearth of ambition? The places like Middlesbrough, Corby, Consett, Merthyr and the rest who were bulldozed by the wonders of free-market economics. The conditions for ‘why bother, it’s hopeless’ were created right there, when a generation of kids saw economic stagnation and decay, who saw their parents thrown on the scrapheap, who saw the places they lived disintegrate before their eyes, and who also saw the rapacious 80’s sail right by them and leave them for dead. Is it any wonder that the drug dealers and the wide-boys, the ultimate Thatcherite go-getter entrepeneurs, sprung up?

So before these kids got to school, things were bleak. Then a sequence of bright sparks in Whitehall, far removed from quotidian realities, decided to reform schools to straiten the teachers into rote National Curriculum teaching. The older and more experienced teachers got out while they could, leaving a vacuum and a generation of inexperienced and ill-equipped replacements in their stead. Schools became a battleground and teachers became a handy political punchbag, not to mention the recipients of literally dozens of new initiatives. And then there’s selection and choice: the great con trick. Parental choice is a way of pacifying the middle classes, who don’t want their dear little ones mixing with scruffy oiks and ne’er-do-wells. So the system is rigged to let them spirit their children away into schools that keep them separate and reinforce the divide, in much the same way that the richest have been able to do with private education for decades. And, in the schools at the bottom, of course, the kids have their expectations managed. so most of them are not encouraged to go to university. It seems, even back when I was a teenager, my friends and I were the exception rather than the rule.

But even if they were encouraged now, what then? Well, as the latest little reorganisation of government has shown, the new attitude to universities seems aggressively functional. Universities are the engines of economic growth, there to provide the materials that industry needs. Gone is the idea of a university being a noble place in itself, gone the idea of learning being a benefit for its own sake: no, academia exists purely to satisfy the needs of industry. Employers demand soft and transferable skills and an awareness of the business world. Why aren’t they bloody paying for it, then? If that’s what they want, why don’t they teach the graudates themselves? I think one can guess why. Evn worse, students are soaked for cash and forced into working to pay for that education. Once again, the poorest are punished. The fear of debt is stil palpable for the very poorest, no matter what is said about money being used to help the neediest.

What the Milburn Report does is whitewash over the cracks and fails to acknowledge that many of the socio-economic mantras of the past quarter century have helped to create this mess. We are the most horrendously inequitable and iniquitous nation in Europe. Until those problems are addressed (and they will not be as too many vested interests are at stake), things will not change.

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