With the publication yesterday of the Coalition Government’s new strategy document Opening doors, breaking barriers, we now have a clearer picture of how the present goverment will approach social mobility. They claim that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Government’s social policy” and that their vision is of “a socially mobile country”.
In many ways, this strategy could have been written by New Labour. Perhaps this is not surprising given that former New Labour Minister Alan Milburn remains the current government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility. His previous (2009) report, published under the auspices of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, is heavily cited here. Of course, that report was published with all party support. It seems there is still political consensus that social mobility is an unambiguously good thing.
As ever in government discussions, social mobility is promoted as a social good for individuals and for the nation:
The lack of social mobility is damaging for individuals. It also leaves the country’s economic potential unfulfilled. (pg 5)
The promotion of social mobility ties the interests of individuals, in this case children and young people as future worker-citizens, to the interests of the national economy. Every individual is expected to take responsibility for playing their part in helping the national economy fulfil its potential. But, almost by definition, the imperative to be socially mobile rests most heavily on the poorest, most precarious sections of society. In this way, they are expected to do even more to strengthen the economy in the national interest.
Where there is a distinctive stamp of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the political rhetoric contained in this report is in its approach to ‘fairness’. Fairness is presented as a state where the individual receives the just rewards for the amount of effort they put into education. Nick Clegg is quoted in the Government’s press release as saying:
Fairness is one of the fundamental values of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society where everybody is free to flourish and where birth is never destiny.
As the strategy document makes clear, this ‘fairness’ is the promised reward for hard work.
What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to of the jobs your parents did. (pg 5)
With this emphasis on fair reward for hard work, it is not surprising that many of the policy recommendations contained in the strategy document relate to raising young people’s attainment throughout their schooling. Nevertheless, a concern for young people’s aspirations and an imperative to intervene to ‘raise’ them is still present in this document. Aspiration is central to social mobility. It is the specific form of neoliberal social hope that locates a happy future as the reward for taking individual responsibility for one’s social and economic well-being through social mobility.
The educaton system should challenge low aspirations and expectations, dispelling the myth that those from poorer backgrounds cannot aim for top universities and professional careers. Our schools reforms are intended to raise standards across the system, narrow gaps in attainment and raise aspirations. … This is not just about schools or government. We can all make a difference to raising aspirations and helping people make informed choices about jobs and careers. (pg 6)
Intervention to raise young people’s aspirations becomes a national mobilisation – not just the responsibility of schools and government. There seems to be a shift in emphasis contained in this report concerning who is best placed to shape and influence young people’s aspirations. Although schools and universities are still seen as having a role to play here, the Coalition envisage a greater role for businesses in this task. Whilst the state is taking responsibility for mobilising these interventions, it is distancing itself from the delivery of aspiration-raising initiatives. Politicians will lead by example, but the state will not be seen to provide these interventions. Apparently every member of the Cabinet has pledged to join a national scheme to mobilise 100,ooo people to speak about their successful career paths in schools. Promoting an aspirational orientation to the future is all about encouraging the individual to take responsibility for themselves, so what better way to promote it than through ‘successful’ individuals rather than faceless institutions. More so than under New Labour, it seems education is being promoted, not as an end in itself or a social good, but as an instrumental stepping stone to a highly skilled professional career for the individual. Looking out for number one is everything.