Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Getting on

Alan Milburn has produced a characteristically sharp and focused report on social mobility. His commission builds on a lot of excellent work over the years by the Sutton Trust, which had started to identify the 'closed shop' that had grown in many professions. As the report makes clear, this is not about dumbing down, the charge wearily made by some newspapers at any effort to provide a level playing field.
Increasing fair access to professional careers is not about ‘dumbing down’ any more than it isabout allowing young people who would otherwise not be bright enough to become doctors or lawyers. It is about making current access routes fairer and ensuring that those young people who succeed in gaining a top job do so on the basis of talent and merit alone.
What's interesting about the report is its recognition that this is about more than just attainment or having more good schools, desirable though both clearly are. The advantage that many children of professionals enjoy include less tangible factors such as contacts, access to internships and confidence. It is vital that those skills are developed in state schools, and there has been a considerable growth in the number of specialist schools and academies that place great emphasis on them in recent years.

The debate on the curriculum has got bogged down into an unhelpful split between 'knowledge' - traditional subjects - and 'skills' which can include these social and communication skills, but also embrace everything from health education to citizenship. Clearly students need both, as the Milburn report makes clear. And there are plenty of practical proposals on everything from mentoring to flexible degree courses.

But we also need a sea-change in attitudes among the professions (there is evidence of some improvement in the law, but none in medicine). The predictable guff about this being still a problem after 12 years of Labour misses the point - indeed Alan Milburn points out that a long decline in social mobility has bottomed out under this government. State schools have improved considerably. More state pupils go on to university, and more do so from poorer areas. But without the sort of social skills that the professional classes effortlessly pass on to their offspring, we will never narrow the gap. And without a greater sense of ambition in young people themselves, they won't take up the opportunities on offer, which is something that families and teachers can instill.

In the end, we need a cultural revolution as much as government action. With predictions of seven million more professional jobs over the next ten years, nothing less will do.

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