Friday, 29 August 2014

Social Harmony

The iron fist with which the Establishment grasp the country's top professions has been measured and it's massive; if you're looking for the privately educated you'll find them in the corridors of power. Commentators from Left and Right present this a failure of Social Mobility but what exactly is it we've failed to do? To train children born at the 'bottom' of society to convincingly act as if they belong at the 'top'? How many would have to socially mobilise from free school meals to Oxbridge? Less than 1% do at the moment, would a representative 5.5% make our society fair?

In common with all our thinking about poverty this is framed as a problem of what poor people do and don't do, in this case succeed at school and penetrate the forcefield of social networks that surrounds the professions.

Trace the life of a poor child failing this task, Jade. Jade's first interaction with officialdom is her first day at school, where she is given unfamiliar tasks to do with language. Jade, like all of us, is a primate and as such she is highly attuned to signs of favour from the leader of her group to her and her peers. She quickly realises that the language spoken by other members of her class is considered better than her own. She's less likely to embrace schoolwork than they are, because she isn't rewarded by signs from the teacher, conscious or otherwise, that she's outperforming others.

A bad start at school is usually a sign of things to come. Let's say you're a bright-as-a-button Teach First graduate and you want to turn Jade's life around now she's in Year 8 (aged 12/13). You explain to Jade how important school is, that her future depends on her education, that she can succeed if she starts by doing this week's homework. In the past when Jade has done work she's received low grades which is humiliating, given that how well you do at school is how well you'll do at life. If she chooses not to do the work Jade retains a measure of control and saves herself from being judged. Furthermore, she's not making this decision in isolation, she has her friends to consider. Like her they get bad grades and hate school. If Jade turns collaborator for the sake of distant, uncertain economic gain, she faces an immediate social backlash. Her decision not to do the work is a rational one.

Jade's compulsory education ends with her GCSE results. A process that began with a feeling other children were more lauded and progressed with ever more explicit statements of her inferiority ends with a piece of paper making it official. So whose failure are we talking about here? Jade's failure to perform written tasks to the standard of her middle classmates? Or our failure to treat her with respect and present her with good choices? Jade's home life taught her she was born at the bottom of society; her education taught her she belonged there.

The problem of poverty is not that Jade and those like her fail to jump through the hoops we hold up, it's that we use that failure to justify harsh treatment and low pay. By making Education an entrance exam for the middle class, we inadvertently teach the children of the rich that they are better than the children of the poor. That's the problem and it's not solved by elevating a few more Jades to 'higher' classes.

If we believe in Equality we should treat people equally, regardless of their essay writing skills. We've tried sitting atop our privilege and calling down to the poor 'come up here'; how about we look them in the eye and say 'let's come together'? Let's stop kidding ourselves that Social Mobility is a great prize just because we can't achieve it. We'll have a happier and fairer society if we aim for Social Harmony instead.

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