Equality of opportunity

Although this is primarily a blog about medical stuff, I did warn you that there might be the occasional social science themed post. This is one such post.

In his recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, David Cameron came up with many fine words about equality of opportunity. He led us to believe that he was for it. Here is an extract from the relevant part of his speech:

If we tackle the causes of poverty, we can make our country greater.

But there’s another big social problem we need to fix.

In politicians’ speak: a “lack of social mobility”.

In normal language: people unable to rise from the bottom to the top, or even from the middle to the top, because of their background.

Listen to this: Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

Here, the salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country.

I’m sorry, for us Conservatives, the party of aspiration, we cannot accept that.

We know that education is the springboard to opportunity.

Fine words indeed. Cameron is quite right to identify lack of social mobility as a major problem. It cannot be right that your life chances should depend so much on who your parents are.

Cameron is also quite right to highlight the important role of education. Inequality of opportunity starts at school. If you have pushy middle class parents who get you into a good school, then you are likely to do better than if you have disadvantaged parents and end up in a poor school.

But it is very hard to reconcile Cameron’s fine words with today’s announcement of a new grammar school. In theory, grammar schools are supposed to aid social mobility by allowing bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to have a great education.

But in practice, they do no such thing.

In practice, grammar schools perpetuate social inequalities. Grammar schools are largely the preserve of the middle classes. According to research from the Institute for Fiscal studies, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their better off peers to get into grammar schools, even if they have the same level of academic achievement.

It’s almost as if Cameron says one thing but means something else entirely, isn’t it?

If Cameron is serious about equality of opportunity, I have one little trick from the statistician’s toolkit which I think could help, namely randomisation.

My suggestion is this. All children should be randomly allocated to a school. Parents would have no say in which school their child goes to: it would be determined purely by randomisation. The available pool of schools would of course need to be within reasonable travelling distance of where the child lives, but that distance could be defined quite generously, so that you wouldn’t still have cosy middle class schools in cosy middle class neighbourhoods and poor schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

At the moment, it is perfectly accepted by the political classes that some schools are good schools and others are poor. Once the middle classes realise that their own children might have to go to the poor schools, my guess is that the acceptance of the existence of poor schools would rapidly diminish. Political pressure would soon make sure that all schools are good schools.

That way, all children would have an equal start in life, no matter how rich their parents were.

This suggestion is, of course, pure fantasy. There is absolutely no way that our political classes would ever allow it. Under a system like that, their own children might have to go to school with the plebs, and that would never do, would it?

But please don’t expect me to take any politician seriously if they talk about equality of opportunity on the one hand but still support a system in which the school that kids go to is determined mainly by the socioeconomic status of their parents.

6 thoughts on “Equality of opportunity”

  1. Well argued as always Adam but I wonder if you shouldn’t perhaps go back in time? I think there was great social mobility for us baby boomers, sure we had the 11 plus, with that grammar schools and in my case direct grant schools. Neither the grammar schools nor the direct grant schools were the preserve of the middle class! My direct grant school is now independent but we have at least 200 boys there with bursaries from the school largely paid for by old-boys, their parents could certainly not afford the fees! In the old days many more boys would have attended from poorer families. In my view ‘socially engineered’ school entry is counter productive to social mobility, local authorities attempt a version of randomisation by admitting set percentages from the different ability groups as assessed by SATS. I don’t think it works.

    1. You could well be right, Barry, that going back a few decades the school system did help bright kids from less advantaged backgrounds to get a great eduction.

      But that’s certainly not how it works now. I wonder what has changed?

  2. Brighton & Hove have a lottery for oversubscribed secondary schools. Early results were mixed, though it would probably take a generation at least for the impact to reach a steady state that could be fairly evaluated.

  3. Part of the problem is that teaching as a profession is not respected as it should be. Again going back decades (many!) I remember my French teacher at school telling us that in France a teacher is the social equal of a doctor or a lawyer. I don’t know what it’s like in France now, or whether teachers there get paid as much as doctors and lawyers.

    1. Funny you should say that, Les. I remember when I was at school being told by my German teacher that in Germany teachers are considered on a par with engineers. And that probably means a lot more in Germany than it does over here.

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