Thursday, 31 May 2012

A thought on social mobility - and my Uncle Ray...


My late uncle Ray was a judge - not a grand high court version of that beast but a more humble sort sitting in County Courts. But then I'm a Tory politician, you'd expect me to have at least one uncle sitting as a judge!

My uncle didn't go to university. Indeed he left school at fourteen and got a job in a solicitor's office doing odds and bits of jobs around the place. By dint of application and night school (not to mention working every hour god sent) Ray got to be a solicitor, then a partner and then a judge.

So Ray, from an ordinary working-class background in South London, ended up in the most bewigged of middle-class professions. All without spending time in and around the dreaming spires, redbrick halls or tatty '60s blocks of a university. And there are plenty of others of Ray's generation who took the same route - school, office job, night school or correspondence college and hard work.

So it rather galls me (someone who swanned from school to university without much thought) when people speak of university access as if it were the only means to resolve issues of social mobility. And I am struck by Alan Milburn's observation about the professions:

"The question posed by this report is whether the growth in professional employment is creating a social mobility dividend for our country - the short answer is not yet. In fact, the lack of progress on opening up the professions to a wider pool of talent risks squandering that enormous opportunity for social progress."

In times past plenty of lawyers, accountants and bankers learnt their skills while doing the job. It was a recognised and celebrated route to the top. For sure, the grand still paraded from Harrow to Oxford to a posh chambers in London but that was not the only route.

It is not just a matter of getting into university but persuading those professions - law, accountancy, nursing and so forth - that a vocational route is as valid for them as it is for quantity surveyors, marketing directors and bakers.


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