Inching towards consensus on social mobility

A cross-party report describes Britain's failure to offer children reliable routes out of poverty bu

An intriguing parliamentary report was published this week. No, not that one.  Another one. Given the competition from the Media Select Committee’s agenda-hogging inquiry into malfeasant News International executives, the interim report of the All-Party Working Group on Social Mobility was unlikely to steal the headlines. It has nonetheless been reported in a few places and is worth a look.

The group was established last year to investigate why Britain seems so bad at providing reliable avenues for children from poorer backgrounds to get on in life. And the UK record on that front really is appalling, among the worst in the OECD group of industrialised countries. By some measures, British children’s future prospects are more firmly tethered by their parents’ income than their peers in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Canada ... More dispiriting still, the situation appears to be getting worse. Today’s 40-somethings have progressed, as a cohort, less than the generation that preceded them. The life chances of children born today look substantially pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth. There are exceptions, of course, and tales of heroic - or mundane - emancipation from difficult circumstances. The point that the report makes, largely by aggregating data from a range of wider surveys, is that the pattern is soul-sapping immobility.

It is just an interim report, with wider conclusions due later in the year. The current document generally limits itself to the task of defining social mobility (not straightforward, since one generation superseding the last is a different business to one child out-performing his or her parents) and hinting at some of the areas where policy can intervene. It is framed as “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”. Inevitably, education is identified as the dominant theme and, specifically, the need to examine how the hold that private education has on top university places is really an expression of those schools’ capacity to churn out higher rates of top A-level grades. Once at university, state educated children with lower grades promptly catch up with or overtake their multiple-A-starred peers. There is also a heavy emphasis on intervention in the early years of children’s development, which ample research has shown to be the most effective way to influence life chances.  

There is always the risk in these reports of surrender to platitude and well-meaning abstraction. Naturally, everyone wants all children to get the best start in life. No-one celebrates entrenched cultural and institutional barriers to advancement. No-one advocates complacency or low aspiration. The group will go on to look at other factors affecting social mobility - “higher education and the role of contextual admissions; careers advice, mentoring, role models; enterprise; geography; disability, gender and ethnicity ...”  Conspicuously absent is any consideration of the impact of the current fiscal settlement on incomes, access to services etc. The distributional effects of austerity policies are hard to ignore in a discussion of future social mobility and practically impossible to debate in a parliamentary context without falling behind party lines. Likewise, the interim report contains only a brief and slightly squeamish reference to inequality:

Though they are clearly not the same thing, there is a recognised correlation between developed countries with high levels of mobility and high levels of income equality. Although it is hard to determine causality, there are a number of plausible reasons why high inequality reduces social mobility.

Indeed there are. But the ensuing conversation about potential remedies leads down a path so fraught with ideological and partisan passions that an all-party group scarcely dares tread there.

Given those limitations, the report and the group’s chairman Conservative MP Damian Hinds deserve credit for establishing some common ground on which an urgent debate should follow. The seven truths are:

1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 0 and 3, primarily in the home

2. You can also break the cycle through education…

3. …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching

4. But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings

5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key

6. But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support

7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

Each is fleshed out with supporting data and analysis. The full report is here.

 

British society is among the least mobile in the developed world

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.