The American founding father shows us how to make society more equal
A few years ago, I read that a nearby college to my college in Oldham (where I am the principal) had won a social mobility award. The award-winning college was academic, selective, and focussed mainly on progression to university. Important as their work is, I could not see how anyone knew whether any of the students who went there were actually socially mobile, in the proper meaning of the term, because none of us had the data needed to prove it.
For many years, the prevailing assumption has been that preparing people for university is the best way to improve their opportunities, and is, by implication, the most reliable proxy for social mobility.
It was always difficult to work out where we fitted into this narrative. Our college is a general further education college. We have over 6000 predominantly local learners, studying a wide variety of programmes from those designed for people with no qualifications at all through to degrees. We are not against higher education. We have many excellent partnerships with universities who validate our programmes. However, we are sceptical of the “one size fits all” university model — which is residential, academic, aimed at young people, and largely delivered through big organisations.
We focus on non-degree routes to higher skills, particularly through apprenticeships. Seventy per cent of our learners are from deprived wards, and most will stay in Oldham. Sadly, when it came to giving prizes out, it appeared that social mobility champions would only be interested in our students if they wanted to ‘leave to achieve.’
I have just been appointed deputy chairman of the Social Mobility Commission. I believe that social mobility should not just be about ladders up into the elite for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, important though that is, but a broadly-based advance for the many.
One of the inspirations for this approach is, curiously, American founding father Alexander Hamilton. For Hamilton, who started life as an impoverished orphan and is one of history’s greatest examples of upward mobility, the solution was not a narrow focus on competition for the best opportunities but broadening the range of ways to be successful. In his time he achieved this through support for rapid industrialisation in the young USA.
To put it in modern economic jargon Hamilton was concerned, as should we be, with the supply side of the social mobility problem, with producing more decent, well-paid jobs, not just the demand side, making sure that selection for top jobs is not restricted to a narrow elite.
My paper for the Policy Exchange think tank is both a critique of recent approaches to social mobility and some signposts as to how to think more constructively about it.
First, the dominant narrative is that social mobility is in sharp decline. However, the consensus among academics is that the decline narrative is misleading. Mobility rates are, by any standards, fairly high, with around 75% of adults belonging to a different social class to the one they grew up in.
Second, rejecting the decline argument does not mean that there is no social mobility problem, but it does mean that the debate needs to be more specific about what this problem is and what good mobility should look like. (According to the recent Global Social Mobility Index the UK came 21st out of 82 in the world in 2020, better than the USA, New Zealand and Spain but not as good as Germany or the Scandinavians.)
Third, little attention has been paid to the actual aspirations and ambitions of real people. The little evidence that there is, suggests that people may see social mobility in a different way to social mobility champions.
Fourth, there has been too much focus on the extremes at the bottom and top. This creates a binary view which divides everyone into the ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘advantaged’ losing any sense of nuance for those in the middle.
Fifth, policy has looked only at the demand side of social mobility (the competition between people for a fixed sum of opportunities) rather than, as Hamilton recommended, the supply side (the factors which produce more good jobs).
Finally, social mobility champions worry about making meritocratic competition as fair as possible. But what about merit itself? And the meritless? (More than a third of young people do not achieve decent passes in English and Maths GCSE.) Is merit too narrowly based around cognitive-analytical abilities as revealed by tests?
It is true that in recent years the Social Mobility Commission has discovered the ‘left behind’ and done more work on training and vocational education. But the ‘disparity analysis’ which it has tended to undertake, revealing differences between groups in access to services or opportunities, has little explanatory power and tends to just confirm pessimism about mobility.
We need to look more closely at, among other things, why so-called agglomeration theory (creating high growth hubs in metropolitan centres) has not created the desired spread of opportunity in many places; how professional protection of various kinds has helped to hoard opportunity; how reducing the knowledge content of basic education has harmed the least well-off.
Making social mobility relevant to everyone must be the priority for social mobility champions. To deliver an Alexander Hamilton-style vision of opportunity, the upward relative mobility of the few must be matched by the upward absolute mobility of the many.