How do we get a fairer society?

1:10 pm - December 12th 2007

by Sunder Katwala    

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We all want to live in a fair society. But what should that mean – and how could we get there? I propose that our core fairness test could be this: that we should not inherit our life chances at birth.

In Britain today, where we are born and who our parents are still matters far too much in determining our opportunities and outcomes in life. And so our own choices, talents and aspirations count for too little.

The vision of a free and fair society would be one which extends to us all the autonomy to author our own life stories – challenging the extent to which this is determined by forces beyond our control.

This ‘fight against fate’ – breaking the cycle of disadvantage to make life chances more equal – could provide the lodestar to guide future action and campaigns for equality.

But even if we have an accurate understanding of social mobility, we need a deeper agenda for more equal life chances.

Stalled mobility is an important symptom – a warning signal that the forces of fate are strengthening their grip. But that does not mean that ‘as much social mobility as possible’ should be our goal. Maximum churn is not the measure of the good society.

Naturally, it is upward mobility which is popular with politicians. The anxieties of downward mobility find fewer champions. This helps to explain why many proposals to ‘kick-start social mobility’ which often have a sharp focus on how to offer an ‘escape route’ so that the very brightest children from poor backgrounds can avoid the fate of their friends.

But this is too narrow if it leaves the unfair broader distribution of opportunities and rewards unchanged. We should create broad highways of advancement, not narrow ladders of opportunity, as the Fabian Life Chances Commission argued last year.

Another common concept, ‘meritocracy’, was originally intended to be a warning by its inventor, Michael Young. Even so, a true meritocracy, whatever its faults, would mark progress from where we are today. But we should remember that the worst of all worlds is to have a deeply class structured and stratified society which believes itself to be meritocratic.

Britain should not seek to emulate the United States, where a belief in the American Dream cannot hide the lowest social mobility in the OECD. The idea of meritocracy is naturally popular with winners – but if It leads those at the top to believe that they deserve whatever they can get then there are dangers for social cohesion and social responsibility.

Nevertheless, meritocracy’s demands are rather more radical than many seem to realize. Those of us who want to go further can make much common cause with meritocrats. Perhaps those who use the language of equal opportunity in an easy, consequence-free way could be more robustly challenged more often. Is equal opportunity talk combined with an acknowledgement of how unequal opportunity remains in Britain today? Even better, is a serious agenda to break down the barriers to opportunity being proposed?

Narrowing the gap in education

Education has the potential to be the most powerful force in challenging social disadvantage – but it can also play the decisive role in entrenching and reinforcing existing patterns of inequality. Achieving this will depend on deepening the current agenda – within and beyond the education system.

1. Ending child poverty
2. Get family policy right
3. Target increased resources on disadvantage
4. Start a rational debate about the impact of private education

The political challenge

In a democratic society, finding the compelling public argument for equality and building the coalition to make it possible matters just as much as having the right philosophical account of equality and policies which can narrow the gaps in life chances.

To make enough progress, and protect it being reversed, we will need a 21st century public settlement on equality just as deeply embedded as that which underpins the NHS today.

How we do that will be the focus of a major new Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust project over the next two years, marking the centenary of the 1909 Minority Report on Poor Law reform, which first began an important public argument about our collective responsibility for tackling poverty and inequality.

There is a challenge to each of the major parties.

Labour has put these issues back into the political mainstream. It has been strong on policy – particularly on the early years, and now on extending educational opoportunity. But it has been weaker on shifting public arguments to make further progress possible. The challenge must now be to show that it has not reached the limits of progress by going public to mobilize the support and resources for a deeper agenda.

The emergence of the language of social justice in Conservative politics could mark an important shift. On one level, the party has shifted a long way. Twenty years after Cabinet Ministers declared that there was no poverty in Britain, the party accepts that poverty is relative and has signed up to an aspiration to reduce income inequality by signing up to the idea of ending child poverty.

Yet Conservative social justice thinking has significant gaps. The emphasis is very heavily on individual causes, without any significant analysis of structural factors.. Family breakdown – like addiction and debt – are identified as important causes of poverty; but what is missing is any understanding of poverty as a potential cause of family breakdown, or addiction or debt.

So both right and left will need to dig deeper to combine an analysis of behavioural and structural factors. We have not yet heard a convincing Conservative account about how we got here in the 1980s, or why the UK and the US are at the bottom of the international mobility league and the Nordic countries at the top.

The Liberal Democrats talked about inequality at the last election. But their policy agenda failed the redistribution test – more often targeting the middle rather than the bottom. The challenge for the new leader will be to have a deeper agenda for equal life chances, and showing whether and how the party will seek to equality-proof its localism agenda.

Over the next two years, each of the parties will use the language of social justice. This offers an important opportunity to challenge each of them to develop the deeper equality agenda we need to tackle the cycle of disadvantage.

This is an extract from his speech at Diverse Britain 2007: Promoting Race Equality, held by The Guardian and the Equality and Human Rights Commission on yesterday at the QEII Conference Centre, London. The full version is here.
Sunder is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Education ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

“4. Start a rational debate about the impact of private education”

Wouldn’t it be errr… more rational to have a debate about the impact of state education? After all, that is where most disadvantaged children attend. And private education in the UK is still some of the best in the world. Remember, we have a readymade alternative to our present centralised system and it has already been successful in Sweden. With some contextual adaptations, we could a make a similar reform a driver for equity and higher performance in the UK.

I was going to say almost exactly what Nick has. Point 4 in the ‘narrowing the gap on education’ section has it completely ass-backwards. It’s this sort of thing that justifies the rightist rhetoric about “the politics of envy”.

Making society fairer shouldn’t mean dragging the top down, but boosting the bottom. The question politicans should be asking is not “What impact (whatever that means) is private education having?” but “Why is state education letting so many children down?”.

3. Mark Ferguson

Surely the point is that, in an ideal world, there should be no amount of money that can buy one child a significantly better education than any other child?

I don’t know if that would be an “ideal” world, but it would not be a very *liberal* world.

“Surely the point is that, in an ideal world, there should be no amount of money that can buy one child a significantly better education than any other child?”

Why is that? People are so different that there can’t be a single level of education that is ideal for everyone. Some people won’t have achieved thier potential in academia till they have done Phd (they still might not want to), while others might be better off leaving school at 14 with the basics of maths and English and launching themselves straight into business or sport.

But even if we accepted your premise that somehow a professional basketball player should “cost” the same to train as a doctor, that doesn’t preclude private education at all. In Sweden all funding is provided by the state, but students and their parents choose how to spend it in both public and private organisations, giving them relative freedom from government freedom and interference. The independent schools have to accept pupils on first come first served basis so selection never becomes an issue like the private and state sector in the UK. So with our history of excellent independent education, we should be trying to take advantage of the private sector rather than demonising it.

Nick Cowen – I think there is *some* hope that the left is finally managing to spot that state funding and state provision need not go together.

Mark Ferguson # 3 Why not ? We can all buy different/better cars, houses, holidays, why should education be immune from individual choice ? Different people have different abilities, different expectations and different needs. The state cannot know what those needs are, let alone adress them, only the individual can

Ian # 2 The evidence of the comprehensive education system is that in trying to equialize educational outcomes standards go down rather than up. This is because
the least able take up the most educational resource, which means the average and more able are starved of it and consequently under acheive. Mixed ability sucks downwards, not upwards. Reading ability has hardly shifted here since 1959, despite half a century of attempts to impose equality, doesn’t that tell you something about the merits of trying to engineer “fairness” in education ?

Nick: I think including university and graduate studies in this discussion is clouding the issue a bit.

I don’t think even the most equality-worshipping leftist would contend that the same amount of money should be spent in total on the education of someone who leaves school at the legal minimum age as on someone who does a PhD, even (especially) if tuition fees are completely abolished for university students.

I think what Mark was expressing there is his opposition to the option that parents of a certain means have of private schooling, which is not available to those who cannot afford it. Correct me if I’m wrong, Mark.

What I was expressing in my post (2) is the counter-argument to this, i.e. that education, like wealth, is not zero-sum and that talking about the “impact” of private education is barking up the wrong tree.

Matt: I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the part of your post addressed to me.

We don’t necessarily want to go back to the days of the 11-plus, but a bit of realism regarding the differing potentials of individuals is required. Like I said in the first post, the focus has to be on equalising opportunities (preferably by bringing the most under-achieving schools up, not dragging the best down!) NOT trying to equalise outcomes, which is absurd.

It’s unfashionable to say around here I guess, but I agree to quite a significant extent with the likes of Melanie Phillips when they say that politically correct ‘everybody’s equal’ dogma has a lot to answer for when we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with state education today. The fact is that individual pupils are not equal, do not all have the same potential to ‘succeed’ (however you define that), and there is more than a grain of truth in Matt’s contention that the ‘least able’ drag general standards down.

It’s unfashionable to say around here I guess, but I agree to quite a significant extent with the likes of Melanie Phillips when they say that politically correct ‘everybody’s equal’ dogma has a lot to answer for when we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with state education today.

Erm, I’m not sure Sunder has said anywhere that everyone is academically equal.
The full version is here:

The point is about how private education hinders, or exacerbates the worsening of a lack of social mobility.

Educational attainment is not a zer sum game of course. But social mobility can be, can it not? If only Oxbridge / Eton types are getting into politics/media and there’s a financial reason why some families can’t send their kids there – it is obvious that some very talented but poor kids are missing out.

Oh, I didn’t mean to insinuate that Sunder had said that – I was agreeing with Matt’s post only, in particularly the part where he referred to equalizing academic outcomes.

As for Oxbridge: Yes, the statistics on entry to those top universities are shocking (is it something like 50% of intake from private schools?). There are a number of reasons for this – I don’t believe it’s simply a case of Oxbridge discriminating in favour of pupils from such schools, but factors such as specialised interview coaching and preparation doubtless play some part.

I don’t think this contradicts what I said in my previous post though. I agree that “very talented but poor kids are missing out” – Because they’re getting a poor-quality education from state schools, not because they didn’t go to Eton. We don’t have anything like equality of opportunity, and that’s because state education isn’t good enough!

Ian – You have some bottle praising Mel Philips on here !

I think one of the problems has been that equality is defined in very middle class terms. Basically, if we can give enough people the opportunity to get into higher education then we have created a de facto equality. Leaving aside emotive debates about higher education being devalued if it becomes a majority right, there will always be a significant percentage of school leavers who can’t, or don’t want to go to university, for a whole variety of reasons that may or may not be directly to do with education.
We have left these people with too few opportunities, there is too little emphasis on the acquisition of skills than enable people to simply earn a living with a markeatable skill, rather than be “educated”. Manual work, or even technical skill, is undervalued in a way it is not in other countries. Getting your hands dirty is now seen as a failure, a mark of low ambition and low intelligence. This is absurd for 2 reasons. Firstly, rather than being the passport to a good job, holding a degree has become an insualator of sorts against getting a crap one. Secondly, supply and demand means that plumbers, if you can find one, earn as much as solicitors, and certainly more than many of the public sector middle managers (ahem) that tertiary education is churning out. Rather than trying to channel ever higher numbers through an expensive tertiary education system, why not invest in vocational training. The idea that 50% of jobs require a degree is simply absurd, in the organisation I work for, “graduate jobs” are now the same jobs that school leavers did 20 years ago – and they generally did it a lot better – graduates seem to go into shock when they realise, whilst waiting for the photocopier to warm up, just how little their 3 years of work and mountain of debt has bought them. In purely financial terms, an extra 3 years in work would have been more profitable for most.
The government need to lose their snobbery, stop dictating that sucess is obtainable only through academic acheivment and accept that many people don’t want to set the world alight, they just want to earn a reasonable living doing something of value that is respected by society.

From the Cambridge admissions office 2005 and 2006.
46% of applications were from state (“maintained” as they quaintly call them) schools, and 47% of acceptances!
The bias is not in the *admissions* process – it is in the poverty of expectations which leads to such a proportionately low percentage of *applications* from state schools.

I don’t agree with much else Phillips says. However, when it comes to education (which IMO is the area in which she actually knows what she’s talking about), I think she gets it just about right.

Sunny. I think you are looking at it the wrong way round. Inquality is caused, or at least reinforced, far more by state education being rubbish, than by private education being good. Rather than accepting that and copying the methods of private education (teaching rather than trying to make learning “fun”, uniforms, discipline, respect and authority) the govt carry on flogging the long dead horse of laissez fair inclusive education, believing that if you just keep measuring it’s crapness in different ways, it will somehow one day get better, when an idiot could see that it doesn’t work and never will.
BTW I’m amused that you see politics and the media (!!!) as pinnacles of success and exclusivity, if either of my kids went into them I’d be sorely disappointed.

I’d like to turn this argument around. Why should it matter whether or not you have an A-level in History, English or whatever?

Does all this education do anything useful except act as a glorified intelligence test?

Are some types of education more useful than others, and if so which?

BTW – notice that in a hypothetical perfectly meritocratic world variations in life outcomes between people would depend entirely on their genes. Which are clearly hereditary.

So life outcomes, after one generation, would also be hereditary.

I think that some of the people who talk about equality above miss the point slightly. Of course people have different abilities and some will naturally have higher academic achievements than others. In that sense people are certainly not equal and it would be silly to suggest that we can have a system which tries to get everyone leaving with a similar set of qualifications.
What I mean when I say I want equality in education is that every child should have an equal opportunuity to fulfill his or her potential, however high or low, and to have an education which is suited to their particular needs.
As for state v private education, surely a large part of the reason for the success of private schools is the nature of the pupils they atract and the extra money they have to spend per child.

I think there is an awful lot of missing a key issue here, and that is most of you are thinking in terms of potential and achievement in completely the wrong way. The Higher education system has been increasing its vocational element greatly in the last 10 years, whether it works or not Browns latest “education until 18” policy wish is all about getting the *other* 50% of people that aren’t in higher education into apprenticeships and vocational training.

But aside from all of this, if you’re talking about education until 18 (which is where this debate is grounded most) you really can’t talk about potential as if some students might as well jack it in before GCSE’s. Academic study is not the only measure of a persons worth and it is becoming more and more widely acknowledged. I think it makes for a very recessive debate if you talk about private education, where essentially academic students go to academic schools and funnily enough do well with the extra money spent on them, as being the ideal to attain without bringing its success into context.

Meanwhile students that don’t learn in “traditional” manners, that are more physical in their approach, that work less on memory (as the GCSE and A-Levels have become singularly a test on, capacity to remember) and more on social interaction.

If you want a fairer society stop having debates with as limited a focus as this one and realise education reform has to come with a caveat for truly embracing and funding the need for separate teaching styles for separate students, and debating the merit of how to go about that change in infrastructure rather than trying to get private schooling on the cheap…especially in debating the merits of Sweden’s model while seemingly skipping over the fact that the standard of schooling around the country would still leave able pupils thoroughly disadvantaged through little more than bad luck, timing and geographical location.

19. Mark Ferguson

Ian understood what I meant earlier, I wouldn’t wish to see a complete standarisation in terms of either cost or structure in the education of students.

I would, however, like cost to no longer act as a factor in educational decisions, and put an end to a system where priveledge can be purchased through certain schools (and therefore access to certain universities).

In response to an earlier point, Cambridge University does a great deal on access and widening participation work, with the head of admissions there being particularly dedicated (although I still feel that they could do more, for example rule out higher fees if access to Cambridge from state schools continues to decline).

In reality too, the state/private school language that is used to describe admissions is also criminally flawed. The figures for students attending Oxbridge from a comprehensive school background are too low, and former grammar school students are almost as disproportionately represented as privately educated students.

The major issue to tackle in education is of course aspiration, but I see nothing illiberal in stating that I’d like to see the financial barrier removed from educational choice.

Unfortunately the ‘financial barrier’ in educational choice is a reflection of the hierachic measurement of the quality that the education provides.

So instead of using the false idea that money provides access (which is the current reality), we should learn that access is limited by inequality: I don’t feel I would be hard done by by not attending Oxbridge, provided that where I did attend was of a similar level of quality.

If we wish to provide measurements to create distinguishing descriptions, which we agree ought to ber supported by economic means, then there is no chance that differential financial barriers will be equalised.

The only way to overcome the dillemma is to create a new and more accurate measurement of equality.

Aha! This is exactly what I was trying to explain as “equality of oppurtunity” in a discussion with a fellow a2 politics student the other week. I agree that the “liberal-left”‘s aim should be to ensure that each individual from birth starts at the same place, finishing in different places purely depending on their difference in skills (variety of and quantity of, mind you) not where or how they were born- and with things like superior private education for those fortunate enough to have wealthy parents is a problem which must be tackled.
Whether tackling that means improving state education to that level is arguable maybe.
What I am sure of is that education should be a core part of trying to nullify the inherited advantage in society.

I really enjoy this blog, keep it up 🙂


It just seems to me that this debate, and education in British politics in general, is severely lacking in ideological purchase. I don’t see that most people will be excited/persuaded by the need to redefine meritocracy or adopt a a kind of enlightened Scandinavian voucher scheme.

Maybe one contribution that schools could be easily seen to give to a general increase in fairness could come from *what* they teach, not how much £ they get to do it. I think a lot of people might agree with the idea that Britain is an unfriedly/unhappy place, where ‘competition’ has become a glow-word – imbued with strange messianic qualities. To this end, cringeworthy and too obviously politically-motivated bullshit ‘citizenship’ classes given by part time history/politics teachers could be replaced by real ‘values’ teaching by real trained people. Kinda like secular priests, teaching us that we are our brother’s keeper. The thing is simple, easy to lobby for (at least write to MPs about) and might coalesce real broad-based support around it. Surely a generation of kids with some clear idea of what solidarity might mean would be able to make a real long-lasting contribution through their evryday lives to making society fairer?

Hopefully this is on-topic enough…

Someone once said “….to each according to his needs”. Every school ought to achieve a similar overall standard, in terms of , say, average number of GCSE passes per pupil. In fact there are huge differentials. These tend to correlate with the wealth of the school catchment. Every school needs to be resourced to the point of equality of outcome.

Obviously cash is not the only determinant of school performance, and quality monitoring is necessary, but cash is certainly a major factor. Schools in deprived areas need more resource per child than those in middle class areas. This should not be a matter of an allowance per free school meal child, but adjusting the allocation of funds between schools based on results.

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