Breaking up is hard to do. But moving up is even harder. Social mobility is one of the most difficult and complex problems that this country has to solve.
Slap bang at the heart of it sits education. It is the golden ticket to a better life, as many immigrants will tell you. Both Conservatives and Labour are putting it high up the agenda, the former explicitly, the latter more obliquely by citing fairness.
Education secretary Justine Greening romantically wants people to be the “best version of themselves that they can be”, while Labour, in its National Education Service, has the more functional “education is what empowers us to realise our full potential”.
The good news this week is that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is closing. The bad news is that it is closing very slowly. If we continue at this snail’s pace, the Education Policy Institute says that we will lose a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through the education system (see bit.ly/EPIgap).
What’s crazy is that we put so much effort and money into trying to close the gap at the point at which it is the widest. In the 10 years or so of spending £100 million a year on initiatives to enable to poor children to go to university, we have barely moved the dial.
Whereas over in nurseries such as the Everton Nursery School and Family Centre, situated in the most deprived ward in Liverpool, money can go a long, long way. Here three-year-olds are, on average, 16 to 20 months behind their peers when they start. By 4, they have caught up or even surpassed their peers.
If we are serious about improving social mobility then it needs to begin (but not end) at an early age – when children are at primary school or even earlier, as the Everton experience demonstrates.
Most big policy research does not even consider young children, with recent social mobility reports making scant reference to primary schools.
Many children’s horizons are limited by who they or their parents know. You can’t blame them for that. But we do. We say they lack aspiration. It’s their own fault really. If only they were more aspirational, they’d succeed.
We talk of trying to raise their aspirations without any understanding of them or their communities. We tell them of the lovely shiny jobs on the other side of the country that they cannot see or feel because they do not know anyone who does them. But if only they stretched higher, they could reach them.
These children can’t rely on grit or resilience to get there (although they often have it in spades). Neither do they have the cultural capital of their better-off peers. But what they do have is potential – a potential that can be realised only through education.
If we cannot make that happen, it will be our deficit, not theirs. Unless we make the effort to remove the barriers, the economy of this country will stall. One of the big reasons why we have failed to make progress on social mobility is because we are not honest about the extent of middle-class privilege in all its overt and opaque forms.
It’s easy to want the poor to do better. It’s much more difficult to admit that some of the better-off should do worse.
Until we can say, it’s not you, it’s me, moving up will always be hard to do.