Milburn: Time to Be Optimistic

By Eaton, George | New Statesman (1996), June 11, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Milburn: Time to Be Optimistic

Eaton, George, New Statesman (1996)

Social mobility has become the British political equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all affirm the belief that class should not determine destiny. Their concern is not surprising. As the important 4 June report on social mobility by Alan Milburn, the government's independent adviser, reminds us, Britain remains one of the most socially immobile countries in the developed world.


In the words of the former Labour cabinet minister, the UK has undergone "social engineering on a grand scale" as those from affluent backgrounds have tightened their stranglehold on the top professions--the law, politics, medicine and the media.

When I spoke to Milburn this past week, I began by asking him why social mobility had stagnated and even gone into reverse. "The primary reason is that there's been a big change in the labour market," he said. "We've seen the emergence of a knowledge-based economy in which acquiring skills and qualifications is a prerequisite to get on." The result is an ever more entrenched class system. Milburn "grew up on a council estate and was lucky enough to end up in the cabinet", but 35 per cent of MPs and 59 per cent of the cabinet were privately educated.

Any conversation about social mobility soon turns to education, about which Milburn speaks thoughtfully. He calls for all secondary schools to be given a fixed target to close the gap in attainment between rich and poor, and adds that he supports free schools, "but with conditions ... they should be targeted in the more disadvantaged areas".

Clegg, who has made increasing social mobility his defining mission in government, recently suggested that it should replace income equality as the "ultimate goal" of progressives.

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