The class ceiling

class ceiling

Thanks to Steve Rooney for putting me onto the very excellent Class Ceiling website. The site is run by Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison and Ian McDonald and funded by the ESRC and London School of Economics. It basically documents the enduring importance of class as a way of understanding British society.

The site is full of stories and statistics that make this point. Here are just a few to get you riled up.

  • In higher managerial and professional occupations people from working-class backgrounds earn on average 16% less than those from privileged backgrounds. This amounts to an average of £6,800. This grows if you look at more elite professions such as finance and medicine.
  • Although only a third of the population come from professional backgrounds they make up 73% of doctors, 62% of lawyers and 58% of academics.

This body of research is really valuable for discussions about social mobility and social equity.

Enjoy looking into it and channel your sense of outrage!


Why my children will not be educated in a boater


I’ve noticed a phenomenon in recent months and years. Every so often I’ll log onto Facebook and see that one of my Facebook “friends” has taken the decision to pull their kid out of normal school and enrol them in a private school. Cue a picture of the child in a boater or stylised blazer and then lots of well meaning comments about how people hope their child enjoys their new school.

I don’t post these comments. I feel alienated and confused by their decisions. People who seem generally OK are making decisions that I find very difficult to understand and even more difficult to square morally.

For the record I feel very similarly about the people who suddenly discover God to facilitate the admission of their child into a religious school. In general I don’t believe that the state should fund religious schools, but the decisions of genuinely religious people to school their children in this way are a rather different kettle of fish – but, that is another post.

Back to private (fee paying) schools. In general I believe that creating a system of educational apartheid is a bad thing. Imagine designing an education system. You need some way to allocate people to different schools, so what about if at the age of 11 everyone’s parents took an income test? Depending on the size of the parents’ house and bank balance the young people could be sorted into two (or more) different types of schools. The rich go to one lot of schools, the poor to another.

Now I’m guessing that most people would be loath to support such a system. They might argue that it is not fair. That young people shouldn’t be judged on the income of their parents and that such a system would only serve to entrench inequality and mistrust. However, we routinely live with a system which operates in exactly this way. Rich kids go to private schools, poorer kids don’t. And not only do we live with it, our politicians (who largely came from the private schools) actually fete and celebrate the private schools. (See David Cameron’s conference speech for a recent example).

In fact hardly anyone goes to private schools in Britain. Only about 5-10% of the population are educated in this way (I calculated 6.9% from the latest government school statistics) . This makes the visibility of people with this background all the more noteworthy. Most people don’t go to these schools because they can’t afford to. The private school nearest to where I live will set you back over £11000 per year. They are expensive and hardly essential given that the state funds high quality education for all young people.

However, at some point people’s income reaches the level that would enable them to spend a lot of money on a private education for their children. I’ve started to get interested in why they make this choice. School choices are important career choices, but they are choices that are largely made by your parents for you. So what is it that those parents who make these choices are looking for? I’ve heard a range of different reasons given along the following lines.

  • “Well the state system is in crisis. Of course I believe in public education, but one just can’t take the risk with one’s own child.”
  • “I’ll do anything to maximise my child’s opportunities in life.”
  • “State schools don’t have high enough standards. My child is not being challenged enough.”
  • “State schools don’t look after young people enough. My child needs much more intensive support.”
  • “My child just wouldn’t fit in at the local comprehensive.”

There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in all of these. However I think that they are all wrapped up in a lot of moral panic fostered by politicians and the media. Typically this kind of panic over-emphasises the effect that different types of schools have as opposed to factors like an individual’s intelligence or the socio-economic background they come from. In fact there is a lot of research that suggests that school effect is pretty small. It also typically runs down state schools by sensationalising incidents where they have failed. Melissa Benn is very good on these sorts of issues in her book School Wars.

Of all of the reasons that people give for paying for private education I suspect that the one about their child not fitting in is probably the most important. People feel uncomfortable when they have to deal with people who are different from them. This is not entirely unreasonable, conflict and challenging relationships often appear between different groups. Kids are aware of class, race, gender, sexuality and so on and often make unfair and prejudiced judgements on these lines. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone was just educated with their own? Good fences make good neighbours. Why treat schools as if they are social experiments in multi-culturalism? If I send my kids to a school that only admits other children whose parents work at a university wouldn’t it really be better for everyone? Even better if the school teaches my religion, if the teachers agree with my politics and nobody ever has to have a cross word. A private school allows me to pay for that, or at least something like it. Except of course children, like all human beings, are endlessly inventive in finding differences which they can use as the basis of bullying. So if you go to an all white school, you better hope that you don’t have red hair or a big nose or the wrong trainers!

On the other hand I have watched Metropolis  and know where creating a segregation of the classes leads us. Politically I don’t suppose I’m particularly unusual in wanting to create a society in which different classes and races are educated together in harmony like the keys on a piano. However, it is easy to vote for this kind of ideal, especially when all politicians claim to believe in it as well. But, when you have to make a choice about your son or daughter it all seems to get a bit harder for some people. You are making a career choice for your child and you don’t want to make the wrong one. If you make the most conservative choices and pay every penny you can, then no one can say that you did the wrong thing. Caution is often a good idea, but only if it is in relation to a real danger, rather than a manufactured moral panic.

Personally I don’t feel that my children’s interests and my principles are in conflict. Sorry! I wish I did, but I’ve given it a lot of thought and it seems that there are so many reasons not to send your kids to private school and very few reasons to do this. So I thought I might set out my logic in the hope that it might help people who are struggling with this.

  1. Social and cultural reasons. I believe that young people should have the opportunity to mix with a wide range of people and learn from these interactions. Sometimes these might be hard, but they can still help young people to learn and develop. I think that it is strange and unhealthy to grow up in an environment in which everyone shares almost all of your background.
  2. Political and ethical reasons. I’ve banged on about this already, but I believe that it is profoundly dangerous for us to educate rich and poor separately. Inevitably this is to the detriment of the poor, but it is also likely to be to the detriment of the rich. The growth of inequality and the breakdown of social solidarity are bad for everyone. Having some empathy for people who are different from you is helped along by ever having met someone different from you. It may be a cliché to say that the personal is the political, but in the area of school choice it clearly is. You don’t have to use the private school system, but when you do, you are making a political choice and should think about whether it is one that you are happy with.
  3. Educational reasons. I think that the evidence that private schools offer a better education is pretty slim. Most of the difference in attainment is explained by differences in the intake. Beyond this it is possible that private schools are better at teaching to the test and it is certainly the case that they are better resourced. A recent Sutton Trust study  traces the advantages that private schools have with more resources, smaller class sizes and an ability to attract and retain teachers. The study concludes that although it is difficult to be sure given the data available it is likely that independent schools support children to make more progress. But, there is also evidence from HEFCE  that students from private schools perform worse at university. So private school might help children to pass exams but it probably won’t make them cleverer in the long run.
  4. Career reasons. Where private schools probably do score considerably better than state schools is in wider career benefits. Some of this is about enhanced educational attainment, but this is only one factor. Spending all your time with rich people and their families probably does rub off and offer access to knowledge and networks that constitute real career capital. However, it is difficult to separate these from the socio-economic background of the child. It is also a fairly problematic message to give to young people and runs the risk of fostering a sense of entitlement and unearned privilege. While we might not want our children to get everything the hard way – do we really want everything to come easily to them? There is surely a study to do of the career development needs of trustafarians! However, even with these advantages the aforementioned Sutton Trust report argues that adjusting for social background independent school educated people probably earn £57,653 more than their state school educated colleagues between the ages of 26-42. So that is about £30,000 less than their parents will have paid for their school fees. It is a real advantage, but it isn’t as huge as you might expect.
  5. Financial reasons. Private schools are expensive. You could spend that money on other things that might also offer your children considerable opportunities to learn and develop themselves. Of course you could also give it all to charity or spend it all on buying the finest wines known to humanity. If you don’t send your kids to private school all of these choices are yours.

I didn’t go to private school. My kids don’t go to private school. I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out for me and for them so far. Yes private schools do offer some real advantages. But, once you remove the input factors, they look much less dramatic. There are also some pretty major downsides for society and for individuals.

So bite the bullet and send your kids to Grange Hill. They probably won’t ever learn to wear a boater, but they might just grow up to live in a better and more equal world.

All things being equal? Equality and diversity in careers education, information, advice and guidance

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have just published a new paper on the role of careers work in facilitating equality and diversity. The publication has been written by some of my iCeGS colleagues alongside researchers from National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Entiled All things being equal? the paper makes the following main points:

  • Aspirations, subject choices and career interests are influenced at an early age, affecting later career choices, and, in turn, pay and progression.
  • There is an evidence gap in relation to the choices made by young people by religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, and whether or not a young person has been in care or has offended.
  • Young peoples’ participation in education post-16 varies, with lower rates found among White young people, those from lower socio-economic groups, young men and disabled young people. Young people from lower socio-economic groups are also more likely to be NEET, as are Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean young people and disabled teenagers.
  • Young people have different aspirations, and rarely have no aspirations, but some groups need additional help and encouragement to explore a wider range of careers.
  • Limiting and stereotypical beliefs about ‘suitable’ academic and vocational options according to gender, disability, race or socio-economic status are not always challenged. Effective CEIAG delivery can raise and widen aspirations and career choices.
    • Most young people’s careers information and advice takes place informally at home with some accessing further formal advice through CEIAG services. Those who had talked to Connexions found it to be at least ‘quite’ useful.
    • The provision and quality of CEIAG is insufficiently monitored and inspected so that schools with poor CEIAG in relation to equality cannot be easily identified and supported to improve practice.


The Spirit Level


I’ve just finished The Spirit Level. In case you’ve missed it, this book has been making some political waves and so I thought that I’d pick it up to see what it is all about.


Essentially the argument made in The Spirit Level is a very simple on. You can find strong correlations between things that everyone would agree are bad (poor health, crime, an uneducated populace, low levels of happiness and trust etc) and income inequality. The book concentrates on developed countries and finds that the overall wealth of the country makes little difference to the health and happiness of its populace. Once you’ve achieved a certain level of national wealth becoming more wealthy won’t really offer the population many benefits. So if overall wealth is not important then the way that wealth is shared out is very important. The relative wealth of people matters more than the absolute wealth of people.


The authors Wilkinson and Pickett hammer home this message about the importance of income equality with a huge number of different examples. They write engaging and draw in qualitative examples to help explain the point they are making, but the overall power comes from the correlation of the various measures of misery and the level of income inequality. An equal, fair society in which everyone has a stake is likely to be a better environment in which to live than a society where people observe huge differences between their situation and that of those around them. They acknowledge that there are a range of different ways to achieve income equality, so Japan maintains a much smaller gap between the rich and power through the medium of rates of pay, whereas the Scandinavian countries achieve equality through a redistributive taxation system. However, both of these systems work in terms of creating the good life for their populations. The more you allow inequality to grow the more crime, the worse your health, education and so on. What is more this doesn’t just hit the poor it also hits the middle-earners and the rich. Equality is good for everyone it seems.


Wilkinson and Pickett have described their book as ‘evidence based politics’. The problem is that their evidence suggests that a fairer, more equal and probably a more redistributive society is what is needed to heal “Broken Britain”. There final chapter suggests some fairly radical ways in which this could be achieved through workplace democracy and share ownership schemes. However this is probably not a message that is going to play well with the right. David Cameron has apparently said some positive things about the book, but the UK political right are now engaged in mudslinging against the research and conclusions of the Spirit Level. It seems difficult to find a way to square the message of the book with neo-liberal parties basic beliefs. However will it be possible for them to just dismiss the findings of the book. Wilkinson and Pickett have found that equality works and also that subtly different political economies can produce quiet different political results. Perhaps their biggest finding is that politics does matter and that change and different political solutions are still possible.


What does all this mean for those of us who are interested in guidance? On one hand it is rather depressing as the ultimate conclusion of The Spirit Level is pretty structuralist. The likely outcome for individuals and societies is determined not by what they are told, but rather by the social and economic circumstances in which they find themselves. It is very unlikely on a reading of The Spirit Level that significant numbers of people are going to upskill themselves out of poverty. Political change is required if you expect to see social change. Career guidance is unlikely to be the factor that breaks the strong correlation between income inequality and educational or labour market achievement.


However there are a number of messages that might be of interest to careers workers in this book. The first is that aspiration is relative. We seek to be more like others and to ape their behaviour and achievements. Current society tends to emphasise the financial and material achievements and to centre aspiration around that. Guidance potentially has a role in challenging this version of aspiration (having more) and introducing alternative vision based on social impact (doing good) or work life balance (feeling good) or education (knowing more). Careers work may have a role in understanding things about the way the world works and in helping people to ask questions that improve their own understanding. People probably know that the world isn’t fair, but they may be interested in knowing more about how unfair it is or why it is unfair. Careers work has one role in helping them to individually circumvent the unfairness of the world, but it may also have a role in helping them to collectively challenge the unfairness. Wilkinson and Pickett’s call for workplace democracy might be one thing that careers workers would be more interested in knowing about and in directing their clients to think about.


Perhaps this is pushing impartiality a bit too far, but if the alternative is just to conclude that the current level of income inequality is likely to determine an individuals health, wealth and happiness more than their abilities or potential, it might just be worth the push.