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Why We Need a 'Burkean' Approach to Social Mobility

ResPublica’s Patricia Kaszynska calls for a new 'collective' perspective to the problem of intergenerational disadvantage

The Cabinet Office published today a Progress Report on Fair Access to Professional Careers which investigates the opportunities available to individuals from different backgrounds to enter professional careers. The conclusion of this research authored by Alan Milburn, the Government's independent reviewer on social mobility, is that ‘without further and faster action on the part of the professions, government and others, Britain risks squandering the social mobility dividend that the growth in professional employment offers our country’. In other words, in spite of the increase in the number of professional jobs available, careers in politics, medicine, the law and journalism remain ‘solidly and socially elitist’.

While it is true that access to professions such as law, journalism and medicine must be widened, and therefore more action should be taken to loosen the grip of the privately educated on the labour market (for instance, of the country's top journalists, 54% were privately educated with one third graduating from Oxbridge) - it is important to recognise that the life prospects of many children are already determined by the time they turn 3. Indeed, according to a recent interim report published yesterday by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, future 'destiny' is stamped onto children at a very early age and for 50% of them, determined by parental circumstances (in Denmark this figure stands at 15%). Hence, while a critical approach to the recruitment into professional careers is needed, if social mobility is to become more than a ‘pipe dream’, it has to be a part of a more consolidated, holistic and ground breaking effort.

With social mobility in the UK remaining at the level it was for those born in 1970, and the inequality gap haemorrhaging the aspirations of those at the bottom, a radical rethinking of public policy is needed. In fact, one could go even further and suggest that in order to address the problems of intergenerational deprivation and institutional disadvantage that compounds the lack of opportunities for too many children and young people in the UK, a shift of perspective is needed. Whereas many of the past policy solutions designed to tackle these problems were focused on individuals, new set of measures has to operate on the level of groups and communities as well as individuals. 

For instance, the Pupil Premium has been heralded as the central policy tool to address the problem of underachievement for underprivileged students. While it presents a valuable policy intervention to help students from poor backgrounds to get into better schools, it simply does not go far enough in addressing the root causes of disadvantage. Indeed, the effect of the Pupil Premium, as well as many other policies targeted at improving social mobility, set out to move a small number of individuals up the social ladder, but leave their communities behind. Rather than individuals, 'the little platoon we belong to in society' should become the level targetted by policy makers to answer the challenge of social mobility. In order to tackle the problem of intergenerational disadvantage we need a new set of policy measures and a new 'Burkean' approach.


Comments on: Why We Need a 'Burkean' Approach to Social Mobility

Gravatar Reality 37 01 June 2012
How can you have real social mobility in a society that tells every single young child that they can never reach the top position? Have you ever asked yourself why young Americans are more "Can Do". Lord Young has been stressing young Americans are much more prone to start up new businesses than young Britons. Why is this? It is because at the top of our society sits an unelected hereditary monarch. Poo poo this as you will no doubt. But practice empathy. Pretend you are a young child watching the Jubilee celebrations. What does this event tell you? It tells you that a certain group/family sits at the pyrimidical head of British society. And you are not welcome. And then we get the same group arguing for social mobility. Delusional.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
30 May 2012

New Economies, Innovative Markets

About The Authors

Dr Patricia Kaszynska

Dr Patricia Kaszynska is a Research Associate, having been a senior researcher and project manager from September 2011- ...