Thoughts on social mobility and the Milburn Report

Alan Milburn’s report Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, produced for the Cabinet Office, has received a huge amount of publicity over the last couple of days. 

It’s been personally really rewarding for me to see some of my former students from the Extended Medical Degree Programme, recruited to train as doctors through the Access to Medicine Project at King’s College London so centrally involved in the launch event for the report and featured in so much of the publcity surrounding it.  It was also a pleasant surprise to see a paper I co-authored with Pamela Garlick (http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/336/7653/1111) cited, as evidence in the report.

I’m looking forward to making the time to read the report in full over the next few days, and no doubt I’ll be posting further thoughts once that done.  But, for now, here are some very preliminary reactions to the report and it’s recommendations:

  1. This report recognises the limits of widening participation initiatives over the last twelve years in significantly improving the life chances of young people from working class families.  Certainly, widening participation initiatives have helped widen and increase participation in higher education generally.  But, despite some small scale exemplar projects around the country, widening participation has largely failed to achieve fair access to elite universities and the professions. 
  2. The report acknowledges that the chances of working class young people getting into the upper echalons of several professions are getting worse, not better.  Of course, despite many potentially useful recommendations around educational process and the provision of appropriate careers advice, the report fails to challenge the power of the middle classes to control education as a means to safe-guard and reproduce their privilege.
  3. Although the report contains a whole chapter on ‘raising aspirations’, its title (Unleashing Aspirations) really indicates something of a shift in a way this Government thinks about young people’s aspirations.  The implication is that many young people from all social classes have high aspirations for themselves.  They don’t need their aspirations ‘raised’, they need support realising them, and that entails action to tackle deep-seated structural inequalities in society.
  4. Too many of the report’s recommendations rest on the assumption that the best way to tackle these inequalities is to enable working class teenagers to participate in the type of activities that many of their middle class peers take for granted (e.g. join the Combined Cadet Force to learn how to be a team player) and become more ‘like us’, rather than asking more fundamental questions about the reproduction of privilege, and the social value of generalising the aspirational, middle class cultures promoted here.

Overall, I find myself quite conflicted in my reactions to this report.  I value the social justice argument that it is important to enable all young people to achieve the best that they can, no matter what their social background.  But I also recognise that many of the recommendations in this report (and the ways in which it envisages them being enacted) both re-privilege middle class cultures andstrengthen the neo-liberal forms of governance and educational provision that have exacerbated these growing social inequalities over the last two decades.  I am left asking more fundamental questions about a division of labour that privileges professional careers over other forms of work – and these, in turn, prompt me to think quite critically about the contradictions of ‘social mobility’.

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One response to “Thoughts on social mobility and the Milburn Report

  1. Is there ever any acknowledgement or understanding by government or author’s of such reports that Unfairness and Injustice also plays a significant part in ones social mobility – as it hinders – stagnates and stifles progress in the lives of ‘ordinary people.’

    While education, training and employment have to be the source for aspirations to flow, we have to acknowledge that there is a deeper crises that haunts the hearts and minds of our communities. The Welfare Reform does nothing to address what is already a torture for many who may be disadvantaged and vulnerable and who desperately need the ‘right’ support in order to ‘get back on there feet’ and ‘back into work.’ But, getting the ‘right’ support is key to improving ones social mobility. When our PM is in denial about the failing of the Work Programme, can we not understand the anxiety and distress many must be feeling at the prospect of being squeezed even more amid the diverse range of challenges they may already be facing?

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