Alan Massie: Social mobility leaves the ‘excluded’ further behind

There are parts of the country where the only economic activity is criminal and educational level is so low only a few can escape, writes Allan Massie

Nick Clegg speaks of a society in which there is “entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other”. So he wants universities to discriminate in favour of students from poor backgrounds, even if they have not obtained the exam grades of others from richer ones. The headmaster of Magdalen College School in Oxford, Dr Tim Hands, denounces this as “the old-style Communist creation of a closed market to try to deal with the problem after the event”. This is at first sight a somewhat mystifying criticism, but I think he means that the problem is with schools, not universities. What it has got to do with Communism escapes me.

In one sense, few surely can question Mr Clegg’s description of our society: “entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other”. The gulf between rich and poor is unquestionably wider and deeper than it was 50 years ago, while the evidence of numerous studies suggests that there is less social mobility than there was then. This may be true, though just how true may depend on definitions.

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The two most significant social developments in Britain in my lifetime have been the changed economic position of women and the vast expansion of the middle class. In the first post-war decade, 1945-55, the only professions in which women were well represented were teaching and nursing. Now they are found in all professions – there are said to be more young female lawyers than male ones – and are far more numerous in business. This is a form of social mobility, even if not one recognised if you think only in terms of class.

The expansion of the middle class has been equally notable, even if, in Scotland and the North of England especially, there are many university graduates in middle-class jobs who still choose to identify themselves as working class. Nevertheless, if you take a university education as one mark of middle-class status, it is obvious that the middle class is bigger and the working class smaller than it was in the 1950s. Then fewer than one in ten went on to higher education; now the figure is closer to one in two. So there has been considerable social mobility, and if there is less, or less obviously now, it is because we have come to take this enlarged middle class for granted.

So when Mr Clegg speaks of “entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other”, one might reasonably remark that he seems to be leaving out the very considerable middle. He speaks as if Disraeli’s identification of England as “two nations – the rich and the poor” still holds good, with no regard to the millions of people in between who are neither hugely rich nor miserably poor. This is not only odd. It is a distortion of reality since the people in between constitute a majority in the country. We may be in a recession. We may, most of us, have had to tighten our belts a notch or two. The outlook may be grey. But in general people enjoy a higher standard of living than their grandparents did when they were young.

Nevertheless, Mr Clegg is fully justified in speaking of exclusion at the other end of the social spectrum, and this exclusion is the more bitter because it represents poverty in the midst of plenty. Worse still, this poverty is not only material – as poverty has always been – but moral. There is a poverty of aspiration and there is a damaging poverty of acceptance, as people are trapped in a cycle of long-term unemployment leading in too many cases to unemployability. So there are parts of the country where the only economic activity is criminal. The general educational level is so low that only a few can make their escape.

Here in Scotland we used to pride ourselves on “the Democratic Intellect”. Its standard-bearer was the “lad o’ pairts”, the poor boy from the croft or tenement whose abilities were recognised by the local dominie. Reared in an atmosphere of Presbyterian earnestness and even egalitarianism, he rose to become a university professor or a captain of industry. Despite the gulf between rich and poor, Scotland was a country where a career was open to talent, and the glittering prizes were not reserved for the children of the rich. Yet this egalitarianism, founded in the Presbyterian idea of the dignity of the individual – the idea of Robert Burns as well as of the Kirk – was also, paradoxical as it may seem, essentially elitist. At its heart was the principle of selection, now rejected by our educational establishment. The lad o’ pairts was identified early and given special treatment, stuffed with learning by the dominie. He became socially mobile – even if he remained the pride of his family and the community from which he emerged. But, of course, others were left behind as he advanced.

We are now more conscious of those left behind and, as we say, excluded. There are bright children among them who would benefit from a system of selective schooling. But what of the others? What of those who are not selected? Selection, as recommended by Nick Clegg, would give us conspicuous examples of social mobility. But what of those left behind?

This is surely the question to be addressed. In England, the academies introduced by the Labour government and the Free Schools being promoted by Michael Gove are an attempt to answer it. It is quite possible that these will indeed generate more social mobility – at the cost of leaving the excluded still further excluded. In Scotland, our politicians and educationalists will have nothing to do with these experiments. They remain thirled to the system of neighbourhood comprehensives which produce generally satisfactory results in small towns and middle-class areas – places where there are coherent and fairly prosperous communities – but which have at least contributed to the emergence of zones of social exclusion, where there are few prospects and even fewer which please.

Nobody should pretend there are easy answers, but equally nobody should pretend that things are just fine: that the present system is working well and is in no need of reform, especially in no need of the reforming experiments in progress south of the Border.