Social mobility costs money and it’s time to start spending it

 
Mon 15 Sep 2014

I had the pleasure of seeing digital entrepreneur extraordinaire, Martha Lane-Fox, installed as Chancellor of the Open University this week.  It was an inspiring ceremony but what was even more inspiring was the hundred and seventy students who were receiving their degrees at the same time.  Can there be a more diverse degree congregation anywhere in the world?  The OU provides access to education for a remarkable range of people of differing age, gender, ethnicity and every other social variable you can think of, including background, or what we once described as class.  The OU is a wonderful example of how equality of opportunity can lead to genuine social mobility.  There can be no doubt that education is the most powerful single driver for achieving a meritocracy.  For a country to perform at its best its brightest people need to have the chance to prove themselves, to compete on that much sought-after level playing field rather than at a chronic disadvantage set against those brought up on “the playing fields of Eton.”  In Britain today, the OU is the exception and far from the rule. I might sound a little evangelical which isn't at all surprising given my own OU alumni status.

Whenever one mentions the hold on establishment power and preferment exerted by our major public schools and Oxbridge, people tend to issue a collective sigh which seems to say, “Well, it’s always been like that so it probably always will be.”  Can we afford as a nation to continue with this shrugging air of resignation when 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 55% of top civil servants and 43% of newspaper columnists are all moulded by this same system?*

If it matters, and I would argue that it does, that the vast majority of the population are so limited by educational opportunity that their chances of achieving these positions, however bright and talented they might be, and despite the exceptions, which don't actually prove the rule, are virtually nil, what is to be done?  The answer, not surprisingly, comes down to cash. 

FE Colleges are the real engine of social mobility giving people second and third chances and offering non-traditional but very real routes to success.  Like the OU, FE colleges offer the openness and accessibility which the educational elites of Oxbridge and the major schools simply do not.  It is important to pressurise these institutions to widen their intake, some have even suggested the threat of removal of charitable status, but it is even more important to provide genuine opportunities to all at the point of need (as they call it in the health service), ie close to home. 

It is sometimes argued that private education would wither of its own accord if that provided by the state were of competitive quality.  However when £35,000 per year is spent through the fees on teaching and learning for a pupil at Eton while their contemporaries at Milton Keynes College have only £4,000 spent on them, genuine competition is impossible.  Give us say, £10,000 per head and who knows what might be achieved?

Then there’s what they learn.  We only ever talk about success in this country in terms of academic qualifications.  We all need builders and hairdressers and software engineers and car mechanics and forensic scientists but we never think about where they come from.  The nation is bursting with people who have created successful businesses – made fortunes even – using those kinds of skills.  FE at its best offers a fantastic route to realising such dreams and that’s how it should be. 

So, where do we get the money from to create the opportunities deserved by the many but currently enjoyed by the few?  I have two answers to suggest:
The problem with general taxation is that everybody resents it and everybody has particular elements of it of which they disapprove.  Some people object to spending on overseas aid, some on defence, some on benefits.  Most people think education is a “good thing,” so why don’t we hypothecate education tax as a specific recognisable element.  Education currently receives about 7½% of general taxation.  Why not make that 10%?  Education is a demonstrable investment in the nation’s future and present.  Would anybody really be upset at this figure being set?  I doubt it.  Governments generally don’t like hypothecation precisely because it limits their manoeuvrability when setting departmental budgets.  However we already pay one such levy in the form of National Insurance.  Introduced in 1911 to pay for unemployment benefits it now also goes towards the NHS, sickness and disability allowances and pensions, but not other areas supported by general taxation. 

Another way of improving funding for education would be to take a contribution from Business Rates.  This is already a controversial area because although collected by local authorities the money goes back to central government which chooses how to redistribute it to those same councils but in very different proportions.  Might some of the irritation associated with this money actually be alleviated if employers knew they would have access to better trained recruits as a result?

Special pleading is always provocative.  Other government departments will always say their needs are every bit as great if not greater.  The point is that without high-quality education none of those departments could function at all.

* Source: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2013)

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