David Cameron has today declared that lack of social mobility is a problem. He was responding to comments by his predecessor John Major, but he ignored the main point that Major seemed to be making – the power of private schools.
Only seven percent of the UK population attend fee-paying schools. But the majority of judges, finance directors and top journalists attended them.
This grotesque reality shows how far we are from true democracy, let alone equality. Your birth and therefore your schooling play a bigger part than anything else in determining your chances in life and how much power you have as an adult.
As a child, I felt resentful of private schools. I was angry at the idea that those with the money to do so could buy a better education. I knew that my family and other working class families could never afford this.When I went to university, I came to a partially different conclusion.
I realised that some middle class parents are indeed motivated by a desire for a better education for their children. Some make sacrifices so that their children can go to private schools. But studying in Oxford, I met a good many people who had been to the top private schools – the so-called “public” schools such as Eton and Harrow. It became very clear very quickly that the super-rich who send their children to such places know that they will mix with other people like them and that the values and habits of the ruling class will be passed down (they may not put it like that themselves of course). It is not about getting a better education. It is about being in the right place.
Private schools, particularly the most expensive ones, ensure that it is the children of the rich and powerful who become rich and powerful.
Cameron’s rhetoric about “social mobility” is not going to address that. Cameron’s policies have played a major role in ensuring that half a million people in the UK are dependent on food banks while even people on middle incomes are struggling to pay the heating bills. By talking about social mobility, he is only rubbing salt into the wound.
Those who talk of social mobility usually suggest schemes for helping some of those who are born in poverty to rise above it. It is usually the “gifted” young people who these plans are aimed at. It is rarely explained why rich people get to be rich despite not being “gifted” or why poor people who are not “gifted” should be expected to stay in poverty.
We don’t need social mobility. We need meaningful equality and democracy. We will never have it until we ban private schools.