Social mobility sounds unarguable, but like so many other ideas that are apparently self-evident – the primacy of the “hard-working family”, the ubiquity of “generations of worklessness” – its apparent simplicity is a cover. It’s not Clegg’s fault, incidentally: social mobility has been a policy-wonk buzzword for as long as child poverty targets have been in place – targets which, incidentally, will not be met.
This brings me to my first point: you can call it a target or a tracker, but this school of governance – imagine your ideal outcome, plot the signs that your outcome is being achieved, codify those signs into a “target”, but never actually change anything – doesn’t work. The child poverty targets weren’t achieved because no serious attack was made on income inequality.
The social mobility “trackers” will most probably lead to the blaming of schools in poor areas, as they try to achieve those five A to Cs for disadvantaged kids; schools will learn to game the system, resulting in grade inflation; there will be an annual ding-dong with rectors from Oxford and Cambridge as it emerges that they’ve managed in yet another year not to find a single black person clever enough to study history. And that will be that. No serious change will occur because no serious policy lies behind the call for change.
Moreover, even if social mobility was achieved, what is so great about a society in which the outliers of each class can move relatively freely up and down the hierarchy? What’s so great about being able to escape the gutter, when the bulk of people are still in it?
Part of the reason that class has become so ossified is that, in this time of great inequality, the consequences of dropping from any given class to the one below it are severe – you would move heaven and earth to prevent your children fetching up in blue-collar employment when wages at the bottom are no longer enough to live on. No wonder people try to lock in their privilege by paying for education. The only rational solution to that is to work towards a time when there is less difference between the classes.
This new-soft-left alternative, where you fix it to fast-stream the clever kids out of deprivation, leaving the rest to blame themselves for their shabby prospects because they turned out not to be clever enough … well, obviously it’s not what any sensible person would call communism. It’s not what you’d call socialism either. It’s not liberal egalitarianism, or any of those more fine-tuned theories that make it possible to be a leftie and still own a house. It’s not left wing and, fundamentally, it doesn’t make anything any better.