The Big Question: Why has Britain become more unequal, and can it be changed?

Author: By Nigel Morris, Deputy Political Editor

Why are we asking this now?

Because a damning picture of an increasing dominance of top jobs by children
from the wealthiest families emerged yesterday in a strongly worded report.

It is difficult for ministers to dismiss its findings, as the detailed
analysis of the “closed shop” operating in the most prestigious
professions was commissioned by Gordon Brown and was written by a panel of
experts led by the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn.

Tony Blair committed the party to boosting social mobility a decade ago when
he told the Labour conference that the “old elites [and] establishments”
had “run our professions and our country too long”.

Critics protested yesterday that the former prime minister’s voter-friendly
rhetoric had not been matched by action and that landing a top job depends
as much as ever on who ? rather than what ? you know.

What did the study discover?

Only seven per cent of youngsters are privately educated. But 75 per cent of
judges, 70 per cent of finance directors, 55 per cent of solicitors, more
than 50 per cent of top journalists and 45 per cent of senior civil servants
are public-school products.

Well-paid professional jobs continue to be passed down between the
generations: doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers typically grow up in
families with incomes two-thirds higher than average.

Hasn’t that always been the case?

Of course. But the Milburn study, Fair Access to the Professions, presents
research that the trend has accelerated in recent decades. It says: “Access
to the professions is becoming the preserve of those from a smaller and
smaller part of the social spectrum.”

More stockbrokers, scientists, engineers, bankers, accountants, journalists,
doctors and lawyers in their thirties came from well-off backgrounds than
their 50-year-old counterparts. The study forecasts that if action is not
taken to reverse the historical trend then the typical professional of the
future will come from the wealthiest 30 per cent of homes. In other words,
the professional elite will become even more elitist.

There are signs that some professions ? including business executives,
solicitors and politicians ? are becoming less public school dominated, but
the trend is only slight. Journalism, however, is more exclusive while
medicine is unchanged.

What is the reason?

Researchers believe selection procedures in some professions have been
tightened to recruit more people similar to those already in the job.

Some professions have also become virtually graduate-only. In recent decades
senior accountants could have started as bookkeepers or national journalists
as local newspaper messengers. Such career ladders, offering a chance of
social mobility, have diminished. Vocational apprenticeships rarely
translate into professional jobs.

The Milburn panel also noted a trend of upper middle-class families helping
their children get a foot in the door of their chosen career by getting them
an internship or work experience.

Wasn’t opening up universities meant to change that?

The Government has moved steadily towards its long-term target of getting 50
per cent of children in higher education. The proportion is currently 42 per
cent and British universities this year received record numbers of
applicants. But suspicions remain over how substantially this has benefited
lower-income families ? particularly with the financial burden of tuition

The Milburn report says: “Access to university is extremely inequitable
and the correlation between the chances of going to university and parental
income has strengthened in recent years. Far too many young people who have
the ability to go university are unable to do so because of their background.”

Why does this matter to the economy?

Seven million white-collar posts need to be filled over the next decade ? the
vast majority of new jobs in the economy. Struggling to achieve that could
put Britain at a competitive disadvantage with nations such as China and
India heavily investing in skills.

Mr Milburn and his team argued that it was in the interests of all the
professions to cast their net as widely as possible. The former minister,
who grew up on a council estate, called for “a second great wave of
social mobility” similar to that experienced by Britain half a century
ago to help fill the vacancies.

How does the Government respond?

Downing Street conceded that opening up the professions is an area “where
we need to do more”. But it insisted that it had made widespread
progress in tackling social inequality over the last decade. It said record
numbers of students were in higher education, the highest-ever proportion of
16- to 18-year-olds were in education and training and 600,000 youngsters
had been lifted out of poverty.

How can the exclusivity be changed?

Mr Milburn believes it has to be challenged from the bottom up by encouraging
youngsters aspire to a wider range of professions. Among 88 recommendations,
his team calls for careers advice to begin in primary school and for state
schools to teach “soft skills”, such as public speaking. Teamwork
could be encouraged by establishing armed services cadet forces, currently
largely the preserve of independent schools.

It backs a mentoring scheme for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and an
Obama-style “yes you can” campaign to help them raise their
sights. Universities could be opened to a wider range of people by offering “degrees
without fees” to students living at home and for universities to
compile information about undergraduates’ social backgrounds. The
professions should be obliged, it says, to give more details of recruitment
and internship policies.

Is there other evidence of widening inequality?

While more families have been lifted out of poverty under Labour, the gap
between the worst-off and most affluent has not closed. It has, if anything,
widened slightly. The best-off 1 per cent of the population owned 21 per
cent of the national wealth in 2003; the proportion in 1996 was 20 per cent.
If housing is excluded, the proportion of Britain’s wealth concentrated in
the hands if the richest one-hundredth of citizens has jumped from 26 per
cent to 34 per cent over the period.

Will anything actually change?

Government sources say Mr Brown is sensitive to the issues raised in the
report, pointing out that he would not have commissioned it if he did not
think there was not a problem. Ministers could even begin setting out ways
of tackling the inequality as early as next week ? possibly with a view to
putting their ideas to voters in the election expected next spring.

Their problem is the natural scepticism of electors who might reasonably ask:
what is the point of Labour if it has failed to boost social mobility after
12 years in power?

Has inequality widened over the last decade?


* Top jobs increasingly go to children already in the best-off families.

* Degrees are more important than ever for landing well-paid posts.

* The gap between the wealthiest and worst-off has grown.


* More youngsters from working-class homes are going to university than ever

* Numbers of youngsters growing up in poverty have fallen.

* The proportion of public school-educated recruits is falling in some

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