Social mobility, power and exclusion

Last week a commission led by Alan Milburn set up to investigate social mobility in the UK reported on the ways in which the middle classes have consolidated their hold on elite jobs, and how graduates from top universities dominate the professions. Social postion affects educational attainment even by the age of 5, and the chance of children eligible for free school meals — roughly the poorest 15 per cent by family income — getting good qualifications by the age of 16 is still less than a third that of their better-off classmates. Being born poor makes it very likely that you will remain poor.

One view would be that since there will be more and more professional jobs, so we just produce more and more better educated children and the road is open for everyone. The solution from this perspective is that working class parents just need to be more aspirational.  ‘Empowering’ parents with choice over which schools to send their children to will drive up standards and therefore produce better educated children who will go on to become professionals. Everybody wins.  However, this  view tends to ignore the fact that  on many occasions  for some to rise, others must fall.   Just so with the discussion of empowerment when it turns on disempowered groups, like poorer parents, becoming empowered, as though there were an endless fund of power to which we just keep adding . If power is relational then for some groups to have more power implies other groups having less.

What the report on inequality does not address sufficiently is the ways in which  established groups, to use Norbert Elias’s  term, try to hang on to their status and power by excluding others. One explanation of the success of those who are privately educated is the access it gives them to networks of contacts, which are self-reproducing. Equally, areas of better housing have better schools, so are exclusonary on the basis of financial ability to move into the area. And the struggle is not just between those with greater status and those with less, but also within the established group there are patterns of disciplining behaviour where the established try to exercise control over each other:

The fear arising from the situation of the whole group, from the struggle to preserve their cherished and threatened position, acts directly as a force maintaining the code of conduct, the cultivation of the super ego in its members. It is converted into individual anxiety, the individual’s fear of personal degradation or merely loss of prestige in his own society. (Elias, The Civilising Process)

There is enormous pressure within established groups to conform and not to ‘let the side down’ as can be experienced in any community of middle class parents rivalrous about whose children are attending the most out of school activities or doing the most hours homework.

If we think about social mobility as being a one way process, everyone can simply move up, and of empowerment as something to which individual parents can achieve on their own simply by exercising choice, then it becomes easier to place the burden of responsibility on poor parents, who need to be encouraged to want more for their children. While this is not of itself a bad thing it disregards the very significant social barriers and processes of inclusion and exclusion that maintain existing power relationships and removes the need to address the way that private schools, for example, contribute to these very processes of exclusion.

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