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26 October 2017updated 07 Jun 2021 3:26pm

“Only a mutually supportive nation is a socially mobile nation”: David Lammy on The End of Aspiration

By David Lammy

“I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy…where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”

That was Theresa May back in September 2016. Over the course of the following year, 200,000 more children would plunge into absolute poverty. “There’s no more important place to start than education,” she said. I couldn’t agree more; last year there was a decline in the proportion of students from state schools entering UK universities. And a 59 per cent fall in apprenticeships certainly doesn’t represent a society in which “the individual talents and abilities of every child are catered for”.

I could be wrong, but I’m not sure that mounting child poverty and dwindling educational opportunities is what she meant by giving children “the chances they deserve”. But that’s what happens when you add opportunity, social mobility and aspiration to your arsenal of political vocabulary without showing any willingness to actually do what it takes to fight for them.

The UK is a far cry from the world’s greatest meritocracy. Children of highly paid parents are more likely to be high earners themselves and children of low paid parents are more likely to be low earners. Northern children are less likely to reach the expected standard of development before they have even started school and face sparser employment opportunities when they finish.

Of course, not all of the blame lies with this government. Deindustrialisation over the past 30 years has defrauded many people of the opportunity to get a foothold on the socio-economic ladder. Not only has the ladder become steeper, but it’s become more slippery. As Duncan Exley tells us in The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and our Children’s Fading Prospects, “our children are now more likely to slide down the scale than to climb up”. By drawing on both thorough research and interviewees’ experiences, the former Director of the Equality Trust exposes and examines growing social immobility in the UK.

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As one of Duncan’s interviewees, I explained how my housing situation was pretty secure as a child. My parents had been able to buy a house in the early 1970s close to Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate, with a mortgage manageable enough for my mother to pay from her own income after my father walked out the door.

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Today, though, our children are less likely to have the solid foundations of security that most of us had when we were growing up. The growth of zero-hour-contracts has disguised precarity as flexibility, allowing governments to mask deep job insecurity behind opaque employment figures. And where there’s job insecurity, there’s housing insecurity; the charity Shelter found that 1 in 3 working families are only one paycheque away from losing their home.

Aspiration is often framed in opposition to privilege. But this kind of social and economic precarity helps us understand that, to some extent, aspiration can be a privilege in itself. That’s because as your foundations crumble, ambition is one the first things to fall through the cracks. As Duncan explains, it’s the children who suffer – parents whose experience of life is “all snakes and no ladders” are far less likely to engender their children with a worldview characterised by optimistic determination. When I was awarded a choral scholarship to the King’s School in Peterborough, I benefited from an environment of stability that engendered my own belief that I could succeed in life. Aspiration has to be cultivated. But it’s certainly not cultivated in a household that’s waiting on its next pay-cheque or job-roster with bated breath.

While childhood foundations have become shakier, their segregation has become much sturdier. A child born in one of England’s most deprived areas is 10 times more likely to go to a secondary school that “requires improvement” or is “inadequate” than a child in one of the least deprived areas. If you are BAME, Irish Traveller and Gypsy Roma, or if you have special educational needs, you are more likely to be permanently excluded from school and enter alternative provision.

There’s a real sense in which our children navigate separate educational streams, which fuels the idea that different backgrounds mean different aspirations. I remember wanting to be a barrister as early as 7 years old. I also remember one of my teachers trying to discourage me from such an “unrealistic” career ambition – she thought I should be a fireman instead. This told me that certain rungs of the ladder are reserved for certain classes of people, that certain aspirations are unsuitable for people like me.

No wonder I’ve felt like a misfit for most of my life. As a boy, I was made to feel like my aspirations were “above my station”. It’s as if having any aspiration at all required leaving my “ordinary” background, leaving my identity, behind.

Once I became a barrister, my new friendships with fellow lawyers – especially those in the Society of Labour Lawyers – helped implant the idea that entering politics wasn’t “for other people”. Which people exactly? The ones with the same kind of background I grew up in as a boy? You can spend a lot of time as a working-class kid running towards something. But when you get there, the reality is you’ve got to adjust to an environment that isn’t yours. Success, then, really means becoming, or pretending to become, someone else. The problem here isn’t really with the lack of social mobility. It’s with the alienation that our particular brand of social mobility demands.

This is a crucial point of reflection in Exley’s book: we yearn for more social mobility, but what if the issue lies within social mobility itself? In particular, he listens to those who say that a society obsessed with individual aspiration neglects collective social progress. That is, in admiring those who climb up the social ladder, we implicitly resign ourselves to the steepness of the ladder in the first place. After all, giving chances to the brightest among the poor is little use to the vast majority of us who don’t think of ourselves as poor or prodigiously talented. Not everybody wants to be a lawyer or an accountant. But everybody deserves a decent life.

It’s at these crossroads that Exley makes his most insightful contribution; his book is as much about redefining social mobility as it is about promoting it. Social immobility is insecurity. It’s segregation. It’s alienation. Crucially, these are also the markers of a nation that shuns its collective responsibilities. Far from being incompatible, individual aspiration and mutual-support go hand in hand. As Exley proclaims, “the story has to be a national one”.

For starters, an insecure society is neither socially mobile nor collectively equitable. The brunt of insecure employment has fallen on caregivers (namely single-mothers who seek flexible employment). This is both a failure of our collective responsibilities and a barrier to social mobility. It’s a collective failure, because these individuals have absorbed an unfair burden of our shared duty of care. And it’s a barrier to social mobility, because they are forced to navigate a “toll road on the route to opportunity”. I know this because my mother made huge sacrifices to look after me and my siblings by herself. Without mutual support, social mobility cannot be achieved. 

It’s a similar story for segregation. When my teacher told me I should be a fireman, the most regrettable thing about it was her implicit assumption that this wasn’t real success. Why can’t we appreciate the diversity of talents and skills in our society, rather than constructing a hierarchy that defines status so arbitrarily? Let’s redefine social mobility so that people aren’t climbing up rungs of a ladder, but are moving horizontally between equally appreciated roles. What’s important is the ability to achieve one’s own idea of success. And maybe then people won’t feel like they have to leave a part of themselves behind to achieve it.

Duncan Exley’s book is about the kind of society to which we all aspire. He provides us with a sincere warning of what happens when we abandon the principles of opportunity and mobility. When we swallow empty rhetoric of meritocracy without asking what it really means; when we surrender to unfairness by refusing to support each other; when we mistake privilege for meritocracy; that’s the end of aspiration.

Duncan Exley’s The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and our Children’s Fading Prospects is published on 15 May.