Stop Kidding Yourself, Harriet: There's Only One Road to Social Mobility; Walking into Trouble: Harman's Idea That Public Services Should Account for the Class Background of Their Staff Is a Dangerous One

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 14, 2009 | Go to article overview

Stop Kidding Yourself, Harriet: There's Only One Road to Social Mobility; Walking into Trouble: Harman's Idea That Public Services Should Account for the Class Background of Their Staff Is a Dangerous One


Byline: ANNE McELVOY

SOCIAL mobility is back the unsolved conundrum of opportunity and what impedes it. I ought to be pleased, as someone who has campaigned for it to be taken seriously by politicians for some time now.

Alas, there is something dispiriting about arguments that come round like lighthouse beams, briefly commanding the attention of the parties until they get bored , find the solutions too contentious or simply pay lip service and then move on.

Still, Labour's Alan Milburn is surely right to shine a light on hidden barriers to ambitious children from poorer backgrounds rising. It is harder for bright young people without connections to gain work experience and contacts than it was when I started my working life. Informal networks of advice and help are commodities ruthlessly traded across the professions: I will take your Violet for a week in my department on the understanding that one day, my little Freddie will get a stint in Violet's dad's legal chambers.

It isn't wrong but it ends up as an added unfairness towards the less wellconnected.

Conservatives should rethink Chris Grayling's silly remark about "class war" (which can be applied pretty much to anything one finds inconvenient to one's interests or habits). As it happens, David Willetts, now their Higher Education spokesman, once vowed that he would open up work experience at Westminster and Whitehall in exactly the same spirit as Mr Milburn proposes and for the same reasons.

But this is just one aspect of what a much broader commission on social mobility should do and is not doing. What we have here is a cherry, not a cake. It's not remotely adequate in times of worsening prosperity, when parents' fears for their children's prospects multiply.

Neither party has risen to the challenge.

Nearly two years ago, Mr Willetts caused havoc by saying what everyone else knew. There would be no return to grammar schools to widen the spread of opportunity so we'd better think seriously about the alternatives.

Interviewing him at the time, together with the Lib-Dems' David Laws and Mr Milburn, it struck me that three bright and lateral thinkers from across the parties did not really disagree much.

All had concluded that the most effective approach was a more daring education reform which would promote greater freedoms in the way that schools operated and were funded, in order to raise their levels of achievement. They embraced a range of more controversial solutions like allowing extra money to be spent on poorer children's education and incentives for good teachers to work in under-privileged areas.

But Mr Milburn was the odd one out.

His contribution came from the political wilderness, into which he had been hurled as a result of a long-standing clash with Gordon Brown on public-service reform and its limits.

So, has Mr Brown changed his mind or is he simply undertaking a diplomatic move to bring back an old enemy who is dangerous outside the tent, while repudiating his more interesting views on the matter in hand? To add to the mystery, Harriet Harman's White Paper on social mobility this week contains an astonishing commitment: "The Government will consider legislating to make clear that tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of key public services. …

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Stop Kidding Yourself, Harriet: There's Only One Road to Social Mobility; Walking into Trouble: Harman's Idea That Public Services Should Account for the Class Background of Their Staff Is a Dangerous One
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