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Get out of the ghetto

It seems churlish at first sight to criticise Alan Milburn's recent research on social mobility, with its helpful suggestions for paid internships and careers advice. But a closer look at Unleashing Aspiration, the report of his Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, published last month, reveals some illuminating trends.

A young man born in 1958 who turned 21 in 1979 is likely to have a better job than his father, but sons born in 1970, who grew up under successive Thatcher governments, are less likely to. The report does not provide comparisons for those born after 1970, who reached adulthood at the height of New Labour, but numerous indicators suggest that the downward spiral of mobility has continued.

Seen in this context, Milburn's suggestion of careers advice starts to look rather ill-matched to the scale of the problem. Yet the more substantive proposals are of greater concern: they rely mainly on policy ideas from the US, where levels of social mobility are the worst in the developed world.

These American-inspired solutions tackle symptoms rather than causes. Concerns over social mobility are met with discussions of "social capital" and the need for positive thinking.

Social capital, which concerns the diverse networks between individuals, is one of the government's favourite policy ideas. It is based on the work of the American political scientist Robert Putnam, who argues that the decline in community in the US is due to waning participation in civic society. Few would deny that diverse networks between people are a good thing. But the concept of social capital is a controversial one: some academics argue that it is merely replacing more familiar terms such as sociability and trust, and that a far more important discussion of the consequences of growing privatism, individualism and social inequality is being bypassed.

Rather than look at what is damaging the links between us, the report proposes sticking-plaster solutions. Decreased social mobility is in large part due to the decline of the relatively mixed communities that characterised British cities until the 1980s - before viable alternatives to home ownership were all but killed off and choice was introduced in schools.

It is the unholy alliance between home ownership and education policies that has done most to reduce the diversity of young people's networks. The less well-off are ghettoised in enclaves of deprivation, with schools to which their near neighbours in more affluent catchments would not dream of sending their children. It goes without saying that a greater social mix in schools automatically gives children experience of a wide range of networks and aspirations.

However, the report proposes introducing ever more choice in education, floating the US policy idea of vouchers to assist parents who want to take their children out of failing schools, rightly described by Milburn as "ghettoes of disadvantage". But what future for the children who stay there?

At one point the report does mention, almost in passing, that a study of six European countries showed that Britain had the lowest social mobility for women and the second-lowest for men. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, in the developed world only the US has lower levels of social mobility than the UK. Isn't it time we started learning from our European neighbours, instead of copying a society that is doing even worse than our own?

Anna Minton is the author of "Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-Century City", published by Penguin (£9.99).

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads