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November 03, 2008



One important issue, which many people seem truly uncomfortable with, is that some parents from lower socio-demographic groups simply don't value education highly enough. The easy fallacy is that it's their lack of wealth that is somehow to blame for this, but it's a back to front argument.

I'm fortunate, my working class parents thought education to be massively important for their children. Some of their peer group gave it far less interest for their children and the differences in outcome are observable.

The gov can invest in schools, it can pander to trendy to social ideals, but if it can't convince some parents to treat their children's education more seriously then the problem will remain. It's the same with many of the most stubborn social problems - as long as there is a reluctance to acknowledge the role certain groups play in holding themselves back (oppressing themselves) in favour of concentrating on external factors that don't require responsibility on the part of the individual then the gov will be deliberately side stepping the root problem.

David Heigham

I value equality of esteem very highly; and regard social class as a demeaning and frustrating hold-over from the past. But I do not see any grounds for regarding "social mobility", "equality of opportunity" or "equality of outcome" as proper policy goals. They are second-order constructs. The proper primary aim is to enable more people to fulfil more of their potential and live more fully. And you have failed if you give what you think is the opportunity and they do not live more fully.

Given that objective, cost-benefit analysis falls into place. The principal place at which people drop below potential is school. Spending more on schools does very little to change that. Why? The known principal drivers towards fulfilling potential at school are your parents' level of education, the level of education of the parents of the other pupils, and the performance of individual teachers. Spending more changes none of these. Giving other teachers the opportunity and incentive to copy how outstanding teachers work is likely to prove relatively low cost, and very effective over a decade or two. Deliberately mixing pupils from different parental education backgrounds (kids with university educated parents do not do worse if two thirds of the school intake do not have that advantage) is also likely to prove cost effective. There is also spotty evidence that some technological aids are also helping some teachers, though many achieve little.

Policy could achieve quite a bit. The Strategy Unit paper is better than most of its kind; but will have little result unless the debate is re-focussed.


It's their own fault for not putting Hilary Benn in charge of it.

Anonny Mouse

"Equality of Outcome" seems to be code for "not rewarding effort or intelligence". This is a very bad idea, for all sorts of reasons, the most obvious of which is that it actively discourages effort and intelligence leading to either all the hard working intelligent people becoming rather hostile, or suppressing any attempt to improve, because hey! What does it matter? The first, I guess, leads to revolution or stultification as all the intelligent people leave. The second leads to stultification, and eventually collapse.

Equality of opportunity says that everyone is rewarded similarly for their attempts. This is also rather odd, as it really does not mirror nature. You can improve your percentages by effort and intelligence, but nothing is guaranteed. Maybe the government could concentrate rather on allowing us to live for ourselves, rather than trying to interfere all the fucking time?

Novel concept, I know. No room for ministerial egos, private finance initiatives or armies of civil servants. Less money for lawyers and accountants. Probably less work for economists too, more's the pity ;-) But methinks that if you cannot somehow manage to feed yourself, or convince other people to feed you without the pointy stick of government, then perhaps you should not get to eat?


"One important issue, which many people seem truly uncomfortable with, is that some parents from lower socio-demographic groups simply don't value education highly enough."

Define 'enough'. My wife's parents certainly didn't value higher education. She went to Cambridge anyway - because she wanted to, because the school wanted her to and, most importantly, because *it absolutely definitely wasn't going to cost them anything at all*.

If you make everyone pay for something, then people who can't afford to pay - or think they might not be able to afford to pay - are highly unlikely to value that something 'enough'.


I am interested in, among other things, why Anonny Mouse thinks intelligence is deterred by promoting greater equality of opportunity. Clearly, those pesky incentives affect g (whatever that is) too. I have nothing to add but fairly weak snarks.

Bob B

"Giving other teachers the opportunity and incentive to copy how outstanding teachers work is likely to prove relatively low cost, and very effective over a decade or two."

I agree. Several highly esteemed universities - like the MIT - have taken to putting complete undergrad lecture courses online and there's a good case for better structured displays of school-level courses and teaching materials to support best practice teaching. Sadly, an earlier attempt to establish an e-university was another of Blunkett's failures:

"A failed government scheme to offer UK university courses online has been branded a 'disgraceful waste' by MPs. The e-University was scrapped last year [2004], having attracted only 900 students at a cost of £50m. Chief executive John Beaumont was paid a bonus of £44,914, despite a failure to bring in private sector backers. The Commons education select committee called this 'morally indefensible' but the government said the e-University project had 'improved understanding'."

But we need to recognise that, arguably, the most worrying failure of our present schooling system is the problem of the NEETs - not in education, employment or training:

"Nearly one in five UK 16 and 17-year-olds are Neets - those neither in employment, education or training - a study seen by the BBC suggests. Official figures say such youths make up 7% of their age group in England. . . "

Britain is close to being the leader among OECD economies in the drop-out rate from education and training at 17.

Bob B

It's all very well going on about these deliciously abstract issues of equality of outcomes in education versus equality of opportunity versus the opportunity to fulfil potential but social mobility is obstructed by very basic factors such as the NEETs, Britain's relatively low stay-on rate in education and training at 16 and our high level of exclusions from schools:

"Disruptive pupils are being given repeat suspensions rather than being permanently excluded from England's schools, official figures suggest. The number of pupils suspended 10 times or more in a year more than doubled between 2004 and 2007, while permanent exclusions fell by 13%."


[The evidence for this lies solely on page 36 of this pdf, which cites an as-yet unpublished paper]

motes and beams, sir!


I can recall going to network marketing events where several speakers have made successes of their lives through very hard work...however, because they deem that they made it without the help of the education system, they are quite happy to take their kids out of school to go on exotic holidays and they devalue educational attainment completely. I guess this a counter play - what is the relevance of academic achievement to economic or social (as distinct from personal) success?

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The post says: "More progressive taxation, allied to an attempt to dismantle organizational hierarchies, might be far easier ways of achieving equality than costly and vain efforts to improve social mobility".

But in practice, social mobility isn't seen as a route to egalitarianism; instead social mobility is seen as palliative of high inequality. The argument runs: "Yes, we are a very unequal society, but it doesn't matter because ability can rise to the top no matter how low down the scale it starts from".

Personally I've never been impressed by this argument. Even if it were true (I don't know of any society where it is true, by the way), it means you are justified in treating those at the bottom atrociously. Only a monster or an economist would endorse that.

The other problem with this attitude is that it is an open invitation to the circular argument that (if there is social mobility) then those at the top have the most talent because they are at the top. We have recently seen how little talent those at the top of the financial system possess, but the social mobility argument would justify their remaining at the top because, of course, there are no more talented people below them. There couldn't be, because of social mobility...

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