Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The only way to social mobility

I don't understand class. Well, in a way I suppose I do, but only in a way. I am from a working class background in that my father earned his living through manual work, but after spending my working life in the law I count as middle class. It was once the case that barristers were upper-middle class according to some classometer or another, but as far as I can tell that is not so these days. Yet I am not and never could be a toff.

Undoubtedly I now speak differently from how I did as a teenager, I smoothed some edges because people expect their brief to speak "proper". Early in my career I was appearing on behalf of a youngster who was following the family path by stealing things. He was only about 16 or 17 and already had an impressive string of convictions. The family was out in force to give their support at a preliminary hearing. He was refused bail and after the short hearing it was my duty to explain the state of play to his parents, cousins and grandmother (known, inevitably, as his "nan"). When pausing for breath at one point, Nan took the opportunity to turn to her daughter and say "aw, dunee speak noice". Your criminal classes expect their brief to speak noice.

There, you see, an example of class in action. To me, the criminal class consists of those who make their living from criminal activities, those who supplement their income from criminal activity and those who hit people. A great many of them exist. They know they have chosen to act as they do, they know they might get caught and they know they cannot defend themselves in court as well as a trained lawyer can - even a lawyer of pretty modest ability. So they are always grateful for any help they are given and go out of their way to thank you at every step in the court process. They will happily go to a specialist criminal solicitor with a cockney accent, but their barrister must speak like a gent. That's just part of the natural way of things for them. But woe betide you if you speak down to them. They might be the criminal class but they know their instructions pay your bills so they expect respect and politeness at all times.

I speak of the "criminal class" as shorthand for people who choose to behave in certain ways, ways that happen to be against our current laws. Whether they count as a class for the purposes of politicians and the great concept of "social mobility" is beyond my knowledge, I would guess they don't but I don't know.

When I read anything about social mobility there is one central theme running through the piece. It is not about getting invited to a Duke's cocktail party or playing polo in the grounds of Windsor Castle, it is about education. In particular, it is about families with no history of working in fields that require high educational qualifications and the difficulties faced by their children in gaining access to those jobs. Since I started writing this piece I have completed my daily blog reading and have found that both Mr Raedwald and Mr Tyler have addressed this very point, but I'm going to plough on anyway.

Spending a working lifetime in the law you get to meet a very wide range of people. At one end of my historic spectrum of clients were uneducated thugs, at the other were senior executives of multinational corporations. Many of the former were more pleasant to deal with and more sensible than many of the latter. And among my legal friends and acquaintances are numerous QCs, a fair number of judges and a smattering of members of the House of Lords. That is just a consequence of the world in which I worked, it says nothing about me other than that I worked with a lot of people of greater ability and/or drive than me. At no time did I find the social background of anyone to be relevant to any issue I had to address.

Perhaps the time when it could have come into play was when assessing applicants for pupillage - the apprenticeship barristers have to undertake. All applicants submit a detailed synopsis of their education, their hobbies and any non-academic achievements they have to their name. Inevitably they include the name and location of their secondary school and university. In the three different sets of chambers from which I practised I am not aware of a single example of anyone being refused an interview or a pupillage because of where they went to school or university, still less because of what their parents did for a living. In real life, outside the dreamy world of politicians with an agenda, the quality of the applicant is what matters. We did not want to waste a scarce pupillage on a turkey any more than an employer wants to take on someone who will be a burden to his business.

As it happens we took plenty of people from nicely expensive schools, but only because they appeared to have the necessary wherewithal. On occasions we were wrong and they were in fact turkeys. Equally, we took on plenty from St Bog-Standard's Comprehensive school in the town of Notta Niceplace, only to find some of them were turkeys too. What mattered was not where they came from but who they were at they time they presented themselves to us. Good people from poor backgrounds were still good people and an asset. Poor people from a wealthy background were still poor people and a burden. Education at Eton and Cambridge simply don't help if you are competing against someone better than you, no matter where they went to school and university.

The key to the type of social mobility I am addressing is education. Pure and simple. It is about having a mind that has been developed throughout the school and university years. It cannot be engineered, it cannot be spun, it can happen in one way only - by providing a strong academic education for those children of strong academic ability. The fee-paying schools will always provide this and for that reason they will turn out plenty of would-be doctors, accountants and lawyers. There is no point pretending that children educated in the State sector can gain access to these jobs unless they are provided with the same opportunities for academic development as those against whom they will later challenge for the limited number of available places.

A range of factors combine to make it difficult for many children educated in State schools to gain access to the professions despite them having the natural abilities required. Four factors seem particularly important to me.

First, academic education is valued insufficiently as a good in itself. Because not everyone can do it, so it is seen by some as being undesirable.

Secondly, targets and league tables dictated by politicians make it more important for a school to squeeze as many as possible into a C grade for fear of the consequences if insufficient numbers of pupils meet the target. Resources that might be better targeted at stretching some from a B to an A or a C to a B are instead focussed on the natural Ds and Es to move them up a grade despite it being of no real utility to those children themselves.

Thirdly, far too few children are advised to aim for these jobs. I don't know this as a fact, my view is based wholly on things I have been told by people who did make it and related their experiences of "career advice" at their State school. The finest example of this was described to me many years ago by a dear friend with whom I worked for several years, it involves unashamed name-dropping on my part, but I'll risk my reader's opprobrium. The lady barrister in question told me that when she was at school she was advised to aim for a career as a secretary and to learn short-hand and typing to increase her chances. Her name is Patricia Scotland, she is now the Attorney-General.

Fourthly, and perhaps most absurdly, those who are not burdened by the first three factors or who have had the strength to overcome them must then face university. Some grants are available but not many. It is an inevitable consequence of the ludicrous policy of cramming as many people into university as possible that it is not feasible for the taxpayer to cover the cost of course fees and maintenance for all those whose families cannot afford it themselves. One hears tales of students graduating with £30,000 or more of debts. It is necessarily the case that some very able young people will not be prepared to take on such a liability and will forgo a university education despite being eminently suited to it. It is also necessarily the case that some who do attend university will be deterred from taking professional qualifications because the additional cost/debt is a step too far. And, quite obviously, those who are deterred by cost will mostly come from families of modest means.

Social mobility is nothing to do with "class" as such. It is everything to do with providing academic education for children of an academic bent. No one seems to complain when special sports or theatre schools combine general education with specialist development of the particular talents for which the pupils have been selected. When the England football team is ailing or there is only one British male in the top fifty in the world at tennis, cries go up for special provision to be made to identify the most talented youngsters and nurture them. Everyone involved knows that not all those who show talent at age twelve or fourteen or whatever is the cut-off point will turn into professional players, everyone also knows that some who are pretty average at that age will develop their talents later. Yet the principle is sound - identify those who appear to have a special talent, develop it as well as you can and provide the finance needed to allow it to develop. The same applies to academic ability.

Unless that is done, social mobility will remain nothing but a dream for far too many people who started just as I did and just as my accountant did, and just as my GP did and just as the Attorney-General did.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Well, you speak for the barristering profession, I was always under the impression it was a closed shop, but I'll take your word for it.

I can confirm that the accounting profession is not particularly snobby either, although they do insist on trainees having a 2.1 degree, it does not matter in what or from where. And there is next to no racism or sexism involved (although a heck of a lot of age-ism, if you're past 23 or so, who won't get a training place).

Perhaps a doctor can drop in and say whether this is true for medicine?

So maybe the only last bastion of nepotism that really needs sorting out is, er, the Labour Party itself?

aa said...

Whilst the acounting profession is easier to join, when compared to the Bar, that may have a lot to do with the numbers. As the field narrows in the accountancy profession, progression for the non white male with inferior academics is much harder to achieve. The Bar is said to display many similar characteristics. It is just that, being a much smaller profession, the hurdles have to be negotiated much earlier on in the career path. Knowing a bit about both camps (partner in firm of accountants, bar student), I would venture that long term progression at the Bar (for someone who can secure a tenancy) is now a better bet for someone from a disdavantaged background than the accountancy profession.

As my firm is contemplating a round of interviews, it remains a sad fact that the equity partners in the firm are all working class grammar school kids but that those we interview will be predominantly privately educated.

Anonymous said...

I come from a country bumkin background.My parents were not interested in education,that wasn't for the likes of us.I was bullied in seconday school,so rarely went after the age of 12,for the simple reason I wanted to learn but the bumkins thought it was too hoity toity.The school knew this but did nothing.
I'm all for bettering yourself but not at my expense.Where are the finances you mention comming from but the taxpayer.Why should I subsidise anothers better living standards.Look at the dentists,we paid for their training and what did they do,dump all their nhs patients and made us pay for private treatment.A lot of us couldn't.They were getting a very good living ,I never saw a poor dentist.
If you want to better yourself then you invest your own money for it,don't expect to get rich on the backs of the taxpayer.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the class thing either, I understand that people whose father are Lords or who were educated at Eton or Winchester would be described as upper class but even then I am confused between those people simply rich and those with a 'pedigree'.

As for working and middle class it's all a bit of a loss for me how this influences what jobs people get other than middle class people will, in the whole, tend to be educated to a higher level and so will strive to get their children the best start in life, whereas working class parents may not be so worried that little Johnny is putting in two hours of study a night.

I'd have thought this was a self evident fact though, no need for studies to tell you this.

As for myself, my father was a manual worker, now is a paramedic, I was brought up when he was a manual worker, went to university and am now an engineer, I don't feel any different than when I was a working class lad so I'm not sure what class I am and am not particularly bothered about it.

I will make sure my young son studies hard though.

Stan said...

Good post, FB. I've made the point myself that elitism is sneered upon as something bad. While it can be, it is also a necessary part of a modern economy.

Without it you will not have a genuine meritocracy - just mediocrity.

The Great Simpleton said...

Good post.

Although not strictly professions I can comment on two areas of life.

Firstly the army. I left school at 15 and entered the Army into an engineering apprenticeship based solely on aptitude tests. I left 17 years later with a degree equivalent and at the rank of Warrant Officer. Had I stayed it was a relatively simple progression to a commission.

Nobody gave a stuff that my parents were from the slums of Bradford and had left school at and earlier age than I.

Since leaving the Army I have worked all over the world alongside accountants, layers, bankers and management consultants. None of them cared about my background, only results.

Having said that TFB is correct. It was about education and hard work - I got the first in the Army and have never been scared of the latter.