Clegg, the ‘F’ word and social mobility


Nick Clegg’s self-proclaimed raison d’être in politics is the ‘F’ word: fairness.

And last week, speaking at a conference organised by the Sutton Trust, the Deputy Prime Minister renewed his calls for greater social mobility in Britain, an issue at the heart of his ‘fairness’ agenda.

As part of the government’s plan to monitor this issue, Clegg revealed 17 ‘trackers’ that the government will use annually to measure progress on improving life chances for the underprivileged. Clegg said that these would show ‘how well the government is doing in making society fairer’.

Amongst the ‘trackers’ are indicators such as how many teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve the AAB grades needed for the Russell Group of universities and how many children on free school meals are achieving a ‘good level of development’.

His fresh focus on this issue would appear to be a timely one. Recent reports by the OECD and the All Party Parliamentary Group  (APPG) provide various unflattering findings about social mobility in Britain.  The APPG found that UK mobility is low relative to other OECD countries, meaning that a child’s life prospects in the UK are often more closely linked to their parents’ circumstances than in other developed countries such as Germany or Australia.

Another telling finding is that 32% of MPs and 51% of top Medics come from privately-educated backgrounds, despite only 7% of the population being privately-educated.

But what can actually be done about the issue? How to make Britain more socially mobile? It’s a contentious question and, for Clegg in particular, one riddled with political difficulties. Three main obstacles stand out.

First, there’s the charge of hypocrisy. Critics will ask, ‘How can a Westminster School and Cambridge-educated son of a banker who benefited from unpaid internships paint himself as a champion of social mobility’?  Clegg’s response is that his own fortunate upbringing changes nothing, but opponents of the Deputy Prime Minister will always be quick to shout ‘hypocrite’ whenever he speaks out on this issue.

Second, there’s the divisive question of whether or not to admit weaker applicants from less privileged social backgrounds to Britain’s top universities. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have a strong position on this issue, declaring it a ‘disgrace’ that only ‘1 in 100 Oxbridge entrants have been on free school meals’. Giving these underprivileged students more preference, they argue, is a necessary ingredient of a fairer admissions process and is a way of improving social mobility in the short-term.

But politicians on the right call foul of such a process, arguing that students from more privileged backgrounds would then be disadvantaged and that improving the quality of state education is the more preferable way of increasing social mobility. Clegg is yet to convince these doubters of the merits of preference for the underprivileged.

And third, and perhaps most interestingly for Clegg, is the obstacle that springs from a philosophical tension within his own liberalism: how to balance fairness against that other great ‘F’ word of the liberal cause, freedom?

It seems that there will always be unequal opportunity and social immobility so long as parents are free to bring up their children as they wish. Some will want to make investments in extra tuition for their kids whereas others might prefer to book a family holiday. Likewise, a parent with good social connections will want to use these to find the best opportunities for their children.

So unless Clegg wants to interfere with these parental freedoms it seems that he’ll just have to accept that a dose of social immobility will always be with us. He can continue to push ahead with policies such as the pupil premium, where schools get extra money per disadvantaged pupil, and these should be encouraged and welcomed as they strike at the structural issues that restrict social mobility. But he will also know that perfect social mobility is unattainable in a free society. When the ‘F’ words clash, something’s got to give.

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