I once attended a conference discussing social mobility in education. Part of the conference included breakout sessions of small groups where we discussed ideas on how to improve social mobility. I was part of a group including a young man who had attended an elite private school, red brick university, and who regaled us with stories about garden parties with board members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a passionate exponent of social mobility cliches. Whilst listening to what he had to say, I couldn’t help thinking that, in order to make a true difference, people with his background would have to be willing to jeopardise their own opportunities in order to level the playing field for others. Anything else is akin to a pat on the head.
My internal dilemma stemmed around the fact that, it is easy to espouse the importance of social mobility from a position of arrogance. It is easy to look around you and to feel that the beneficiaries of privilege are “the others”, and, because I have a friendly and pleasant attitude towards other races / backgrounds/ people, that I am not the problem, the others are.
This is predicated on an attitude of “I made it here using my own steam” and “no privilege was exercised in the making of this success story”. A truly honest look would suggest otherwise. In some instances, the mere ability of your parents to put food on the table is a privilege poorer children miss out on.
We’re all a product of our background.
For most, the sum of numerous small advantages leads to preferential outcomes. Most mask these outcomes in a bid to feel that others are the problem and that they’re a special case who’ve made it through talent alone. Talent is only realised if the conditions are set to nurture it.
Unless you have faced true hardship as a result of your background, it is really REALLY difficult to comment. In order to be qualified to comment, you’d have to be prepared to give up your primary school spot in an area where the surrounding children and parents are of nicer disposition to a child less privileged. You would then have to be prepared to attend a school with poorer outcomes if you weren’t as academically minded as your peers. You’d then have to be prepared to enter the world of work if you were ill-equipped to continue your education. You might even need to be prepared to forgo an inheritance if you felt ill equipped to spend it wisely, or indeed, hadn’t earned it.
If you look at yourself with honesty, would you be prepared to do this? Would you be prepared to do this with your children?
Most parents will fight tooth and nail to maintain any advantage for their child. People will select the best schools, hire private tutors, enrol children in expensive extra-curricular activities and support extended stays in education. They’ll then make introductions, arrange work experiences, create internship opportunities and support travels abroad in order to buy time for their offspring to find the best career. As a parent, you use all the means at your disposal to create opportunities for your children.
Equality should not mean equality of attitudes. I’m sure no person of minority background wants a leg up out of pity. True equality manifests itself from equality of opportunity. Are you willing to give up the privileges afforded to you by generations of advantage? If not, posting hashtags, changing profile pictures and spouting sweeping generalisations is patronising. Skin in the game is the only true way to cause change.
Real change will only happen when we create equality of opportunity at every level of society, from primary education to national government. When I relate this narrative to my own situation, I think about my attitude towards my own children. Would I be prepared to let my own children attend a poorer school to let another, more intelligent, child benefit from better surroundings? The honest answer is, probably not.
And therein lies the problem. If we truly desire better attitudes towards minority groups, we need to create the pathways for people from those backgrounds to influence society at a greater level.
We need representation at every level of leadership, and not just token representation. It is only through representation by people who truly understand what it means to be stigmatised due to background, colour of skin or some other uncontrollable attribute that we’ll create the policies and attitudes required to really solve the problem. In what possible way does an Eton alumnus understand the plight of someone who faces greater suspicion from the police due to the colour of their skin? How can policies and initiatives be created without true understanding?
I don’t understand, as I have never been subjected to the subtle behaviours that signify prejudice. The only way we’ll get this understanding is if people step out of the way in order to let people of different backgrounds compete on a level playing field to enter the leadership positions to make a real difference.
The majority of people shudder at the prospect of jeopardising their own comfy lot in life. The pathways to success we provide people with need to change in order to create a society that values diversity. How do we enable people to access opportunity in a more equal fashion?
I believe we do this by divorcing access to opportunity from academic success.
Schools success is often determined by your environment: your parents attitudes to school, the peers you’re surrounded with and the resources you have access to.
Peer groups, I believe, are the single biggest factor. If you’re surrounded with A* students, you too strive for an A*. If you’re in a class of pupils who hate school, you won’t try. These outcomes then determine how you access opportunity. Better grades opens up the field to more educational opportunities and more employment opportunities. This kickstarts the cycle of an upward trajectory.
The skills required to succeed in school, though, are very different from those required in the real world. Sure, some fields require knowledge of a specific variety, but much of this knowledge can be taught via on the job training. The skills built negotiating with rough kids not to beat you up could likely be transferred to an elite graduate scheme sales programme, but the opportunity is given to the person who was fortunate enough to attend university.
Politics is full of Oxbridge graduates. I’d argue we’d be better off with people who’ve led gangs leading our country. They’d get more done. At least they’d be overt with their corruption.
In the majority of professions, academic success tells us nothing about a person’s ability to do the job, yet, the gap we create from primary school directly impacts the end result. Why judge people based on something they’re lucky to have received?Academic success is an abstraction of success in the workplace. Surely, we can come up with more direct indicators? How does the person perform tasks they’d be expected to perform on the job? What work results are they able to obtain? With the advent of online tools, we can create better tests for these skills.
Show people of different backgrounds the work we want them to complete, how to do it, and see if they can do it. Create direct links between a person’s skills and the jobs we need doing. Stop providing opportunities to the people who have done well at school, and using this as an indicator to guess they might continue to do well in our employ. That’s the sure-fire way to perpetuate inequality. School success is determined by background, not ability.
By doing this, I think we’ll find, the degree will make little difference to a person’s ability to perform the work. Opening up opportunity and how we enable people to access opportunity will be greater. I think we’re scared of the answer to this as it might just show us that our intelligence isn’t as great as we think, and that, given the opportunity, most humans will rise to the required levels.
“Show us you can actually do this job” should be our new mantra. Broaden the entry pathways to all professions. Remove the aspects of selection that relate to potential past privilege (such as education level) and link opportunity to a direct ability to achieve the outcomes required.
As Nassim Taleb says, “For if you think that education causes wealth, rather than being a result of wealth, or that intelligent actions and discoveries are the result of intelligent ideas, you will be in for a surprise.”
Education is the privilege of a wealthy society, and not the cause.