Misunderstanding social mobility

More than half of top 100 media professionals attended private schools, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. (my contribution here is both late and following on from the intelligent commentary of others)

The comparable numbers for the civil service, Parliament and court system are little better (or even worse).

What can we do about that? Campaigners highlight some or all of the following: improve state education, strip private schools of their charitable status, abolish Oxbridge!

The most compelling critique of private schools and Oxbridge, I think, is that they endow alumni with an exclusive network of useful contacts. This elite uses the status and contacts from those elite institutions to take jobs that, in truth, others are more deserving of.

I think that’s half-right. Privately-educated Oxbridge types do benefit from an exclusive network, but in general it’s not one that they pick up at school or university. On the initial rungs of the career ladder family and neighbourhood connections count the most.

I have friends who’ve secured brilliant opportunities in leading newspapers, banks and political parties through a family member or family friend. Mostly, they did go to top private schools and universities, but had they not done so those connections would still have existed. The only difference, perhaps, is that the contact feels less embarrassed delivering the favour if the young person is clearly capable.

Conversely there are those who did attend expensive schools and elite universities but, for whatever reason, don’t have a team of well-connected professionals on stand-by to parachute them into a cushy job or internship.

The conflation arises, I think, because well-connected families in metropolitan neighbourhoods are more likely to send their children to private schools and Oxbridge. So there’s a big overlap between the well-connected and the exclusively-educated.

When David Cameron offered an internship to a neighbour’s child, in an important sense he was merely doing a good deed. Far better, for sure, than giving one to the child of a donor or an old school friend. But the material effect is much the same. And who knows whether that child was privately educated – his social connections mattered the most.

Why does this argument matter? The group we’re led to identify as unfairly privileged will be similar (though not the same) after all.

It matters because it suggests that public policy shouldn’t target institutions – schools and universities – but behaviour, specifically nepotism.

Private education and elite universities may contribute to inter-generational inequality in the long-run. But there are things we can do now to make a real difference. It could be as straightforward as simply outlawing any paid or volunteering position (exempting charities and small family companies, say) that wasn’t put out to competitive tender.

In some ways that would be messy and expensive, increasing the workload of HR departments obliged to consider many applicants for each position. But equality of opportunity isn’t just fairer – is that not reason enough to pursue it? – it should make organisations more effective as well.

There’s a good analogy I read once but can’t find the citation for now. It goes something like this: ‘we wouldn’t select today’s England football team from the children of those who played for England twenty years ago. So why would we accept precisely that for our political system, the media industry and the upper echelons of business?’  

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