A Profession of Political Bankruptcy

July 21, 2009

I’m reading through the report from Alan Milburn’s committee entitled “Fair Access to the Professions” and it’s a dispiriting read. It’s dispiriting because of the raw data upon which the report is built – that social mobility in the UK is rock bottom amongst richer nations and that the professions – those social cliques which confer power and status upon their holders – are becoming more, not less exclusive.

But what’s more dispiriting, and infuriating, are the conclusions that the report’s authors, Alan Milburn chief among them, draw from their findings.

These conclusions, and recommendations, are universally paliative – elastoplasts over the gaping wound of elitism and an increasingly unequal society. Either that or they are gimmicks with no chance of making a difference to life chances in the real world.

For example,  one recommendation is for a “new careers service in every school” while another is for a professions.com information portal. Depressingly, the panel also came up with the inspired idea of launching a “Youth Technology and Innovation Award” – as if all the youth of Britain need are entry forms and a shiny new cup to fight over. That’s what’s been holding back their “innovation” and “opportunity.”

There are some more bread and butter ideas, such as 3,o00 fully funded apprenticeships (why not 10,000 or 50,000?) and what are called Lifelong Skills Accounts through which individuals will receive £5,000 to train and retrain to keep their “skills portfolio” relevant.

But the assumptions behind these piecemeal and extremely inadequate proposals are the problem. The report is framed around the notion of “opportunity.” The problem that it sees is that social mobility is being held back by the inability of gifted poorer students to take their rightful roles as doctors, judges or civil servants. Hence, all that is needed is a big push for higher aspirations amongst the lower classes, better links with businesses and the professions (through mentoring, for example) and a generalized improvement in educational standards.

On the last point, it’s well worth noting that ther report describes how in other nations, social mobility has, to an extent, been protected by investment in schools. Sweden, we are told, has opened 900 new schools in the past 15 years (none of them city academies). In Finland, all pre-school and normal school teachers now need a masters qualification and are receiving help with funding to achieve this.

There is  no such effort detailed in the Milburn report, as far as I can see. Enlisting an army of plucky lawyers and corporate middle managers to inspire sullen teenagers into emulating their feats isn’t much of a substitute for good schools and well trained, well paid teachers (who aren’t wallowing in debt). Indeed, one passage of the report actually trumpets the fact that “Since 1997, over 1,500 schools that required special measures have been successfully turned round and a further 280 have been closed.”

There is a rhetorical commitment to good education for all as a driver of social mobility, but this is strictly rhetorical. New Labour, of course, has legislated to make higher education more expensive and more burdensome for graduates via student loans and “top up fees” – making Alan “I benefited from the Post War Labour government’s grants for working class kids” Milburn seem all the more grotesque.

The report is actually an exercise in patronising the lower classes (though few of them, wisely enough, will read it). Aside from celebrating mentors (imagine a cohort of RBS mortgage brokers charging into the common room and energising the kids there with their entrepreneurial genius) it also celebrates city academies and city technology colleges. It is these institutions which lie at the heart of the vision for a socially mobile Britain that Milburn’s Committee appears to yearn for. Characteristically, they are also inherently patronising, and regressive.

The report describes city academies (accurately) as “offer[ing] pupils of all
abilities the opportunity to study a curriculum that is geared, with the help of private sector sponsors, towards the world of work” and this is what the report urges. It is, to put it bluntly, an educational vision akin to a workhouse, inculcating the virtues of hard work into the unruly poor. It is, of course, the fault of the poor (and not the vested interests which dominate both the professions and government) who need to shape up.

Instead of the aforementioned school building program and massive investment in making higher education an economically sensible proposition for poorer Britons, we are offered disciplinary institutions and means of surveillance (what else are the “mentors” than aspirational inspectors?).

Schools, instead of receiving proper funding, are to be disciplined by the parental market. Parents will be given the “right of redress” – the ability to remove their underperforming assets from local schools via “an education credit worth 150% of the cost of the child’s schooling to take them to a state school of their choice” while “The supply of school places coud be opened up to greater competition, particularly in areas of school under-performance.”

The logic behind this is odd. Schools are failing because of their cushty position in local areas, happily taking in kids from the neighborhood, churning them around for a few years before sending them on, suitably stoned and inept, into the world of work. The only way to shape them up is via competition – the agonising prospect that they might lose their precious supply of children.

Other factors behind the poor performance of schools, which include underfunding of equipment, facilities and staff, poverty and deprivation in local areas, the prevalence of violent crime in the area, the lack of playing fields, the lack of creative school trips owing to a fear of litigation and the overtesting of children are pushed aside.

As with so many areas of the New Labour universe – if you get the right rewards/penalty structure in place and marketise the shit out of the target, it’ll shape up in the end. If not, we’ll close the place, hardly the Swedish way to social mobility, but a source of bureaucratic pleasure at the very least. It’s a bleak and horrible way of visualising society.

I’m not going to be totally down about this report, which does actually contain a great deal of useful information about social mobility and, to its credit, churns out plenty of trite but true observations about why Britain isn’t succeeding in rewarding merit. But it fails to locate the major source of social stasis, which is the dominance of government and the much heralded professions by the wealthy. Its conclusions actually seem to point towards the rich as a target for the poor to emulate, as if they got where they are by the much vaunted values of “hard work” and “innovation.”

Try telling that to the next rape victim who is told be an old Etonian judge that she was asking for it. “Oh, he’s just being innovative dear, don’t take it personally.” And, of course, the bankers who made millions from slicing and dicing sub prime mortgages into CDOs were being massively innovative and working terribly hard. As was Sir Peter “duck island” Viggers or Alan “I’m a useless hypocrite” Milburn.

The truth is that those in the professions – but more so in business and politics – largely got there by gaming a system which rewards selfishness, deceit, sycophants, blind discipline and footballers. So to truly enhance social mobility, it looks like the system needs to shape up, rather than the poor with their dozy aspirations.


One Response to “A Profession of Political Bankruptcy”

  1. dayat Says:

    Great post, I found it useful where did I need this information…thanks

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