Education: The Engine for Social Mobility in the UK

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
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The stark contrast between Britain’s private schools (pictured first) and it’s state funded schools (pictured second) has led to less social mobility within the country. Still, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a reputable think tank in the UK, suspects the nation’s budget for education will decrease by 12% in real terms for the next five years. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Written by Sanchit Kumar

During Britain’s industrialization era and the decline of its empire in the 18th century, it increasingly began to value meritocracy. But recent trends raise the question: will social immobility haunt the British again? That remains uncertain as the current British education system has created a disparity between publicly and privately educated individuals.

The Economist graph (lower right) indicates that in some professions, such as journalists, editors, and doctors, there are an increased proportion of privately educated individuals. In fact, Debrett, an organization that has recognized Britain’s 500 most influential people in the last two and a half centuries, found that over 40 percent of these influential people also originate from the top 7 percent of the country’s population that attended private schools.

Holly Henderson, a student at the University of the Arts London, describes private education in the United Kingdom as, “a small, privileged bubble that lacks diversity.” Having experienced both the public and private education system during her formative years in school, she admittedly explains the advantages of private education over public education. “I was given many more opportunities [than in public school] such as extracurricular activities, reduced class sizes, and extra freedom over [my] curriculum.” State-funded schools, on the other hand, cannot afford these luxuries due to their limited budgets.

Additionally, private schools are likely to have a greater quality of teaching that result in higher performance levels. Over 30 percent of private school students attain at least three A-grade scores on their A-levels, the British national standardized test, compared to 7.5 percent of public students, conveying the need to reexamine the public education system that schools over 90 percent of the British youth.

Unfortunately, prospects for change appear dim. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a reputable think tank in the UK, the nation’s budget for education will likely decrease by 12 percent in real terms for the next five years. This blow to public schools
is likely to contribute to long-term economic consequences. According to The Telegraph, half of British small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have complained that Britain is suffering from a skills shortage, stating that young graduates are bereft of basic literacy and numeracy. As a result, these firms insource skilled and more experienced labor from foreign countries, which will continue to break down the ladder to social mobility for the British working class.

So what can be done to rebuild this ladder? “Learn from British history,” is a solution suggested by many, like former Prime Minister John Major. For 33 consecutive years beginning in 1964, every British prime minister attended state-funded public schools. During this period, free academically selective schools, known as grammar schools, fueled social mobility. However, Britain’s deindustrialization period in the 1980’s, and the subsequent elimination of grammar schools in the late 1990’s, affected public scholarship and reduced the meritocratic education system.

Although some may argue that the majority of the British public who do not attend these selective grammar schools will still be sidelined by the system, grammar schools embody meritocracy and articulate that an elitist background is not necessary to succeed in British society. The British government must recognize education as a primary factor for social mobility. Ultimately, change will only materialize through collective political will.

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