Grant Woodward: Opening horizons is the path to social mobility

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THESE days Barbara Taylor Bradford lives in a well-heeled corner of Manhattan in the kind of des res you can afford when you’ve flogged 80 million books. It means she probably didn’t catch this week’s comments from Government adviser Peter Brant on social mobility. But if she had, I’m sure she would have approved.

During an interview a few years ago, the Woman of Substance author told me about her upbringing in the working class Leeds suburb of Armley. She dearly loved her engineer father Winston, but it was her mother, Freda, a nurse, who sparked the self-assuredness that enabled the young Barbara Taylor to take on the world.

Whisking her off on regular visits to museums and Yorkshire’s stately homes, Freda taught her about Constable and Chippendale, while the pair even took a trip to see the Russian Ballet when it came to Leeds.

At four-and-a-half, she was the only child in her nursery class who could read. Her mother made sure she was enrolled at the local library and together the pair tackled the classics, so that by the age of 12 she had read most of Dickens and the Brontës. A special treat was a day out at the Parsonage in Haworth, where the sisters grew up, and they duly became the inspiration for her own foray into writing.

“I’ve been asked if I think I had a funny upbringing,” she told me. “And in comparison to other girls from working class families in Leeds I suppose I did. My mother educated me in a different way to the way I was being educated at school.

“She opened my eyes, my heart and my mind to literature, opera and music. My parents gave me a massive amount of self-confidence and I think of all the things they gave me that was the most important.”

It’s exactly the sort of thing Peter Brant, head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, had in mind when he spoke of the need for working class parents to make sure their children are comfortable in middle class settings to help them get on in life.

He pinpointed worries about “not fitting in” as one of the main reasons why highly able children from less well-off backgrounds are less likely to apply to the top universities and go on to successful careers. As he rightly says, it’s a problem that stems from childhood.

Give children narrow horizons and they will have limited ambition because of this simple reason – they are either unaware of the opportunities that exist for them or have no hope of grabbing them. Such lack of aspiration kills upward mobility stone dead and leaves children who have huge potential marooned in a social and cultural cul de sac.

My own parents made a point of taking my sister and I to pantomimes when we were young, then on to West End musicals and the theatre. Not only were these magical evenings out that exposed us to the thrill of live performance, they were often the pathway to other areas of learning. At the same time, my parents also taught us basic etiquette skills such as how to use cutlery properly, something we put into practice on the occasional visit to a restaurant.

But while parents can open their children’s eyes to aspiration and opportunuity, the Government also has a part to play when it comes to opening the door. The media have made much of the fact that Mr Brant himself was raised in a modest semi in Milton Keynes, but crucially he attended Aylesbury Grammar School before going on to Cambridge University.

Where do the aspiring middle classes go today? Working class families used to see education as a means to get on in life, the class-neutral 11-plus offering a route up the ladder and a good chance of an eventual place at a top university.

Now that ladder has been kicked away. To compound things, whereas once it was the top five per cent of the population who gained a degree, today – thanks to Labour’s ludicrous bid to shove square pegs into round holes and funnel everyone into higher education – they are ten a penny. Far from elevating the brightest and the best, it simply leaves them stuck in the quagmire.

The result is that traditional avenues of social mobility have been all but closed off and the sense is that the only way up is via an expensive education and contacts and influence, a feeling reinforced by the Bullingdon Club look of the Cabinet. Recent studies have shown that Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world, with our earnings more likely to reflect our fathers’ than any other country. Social mobility hasn’t changed since the 1970s – and in some ways it has got worse.

It doesn’t help that the activities Peter Brant urges parents to engage their children in, the ones traditionally associated with the middle classes, are so prohibitively expensive. Shakespeare’s plays may have once been lapped up by the working class masses but these days families living on squeezed budgets are unlikely to be able to afford the ticket prices.

It’s part of the reason, coupled with a state education system where standards are still far too inconsistent, why the wealthy coontinue to exert a stranglehold on the top jobs. Twenty-four per cent of university vice-chancellors, 32 per cent of MPs, 51 per cent of top medics, 54 per cent of FTSE-100 chief executives and 70 per cent of High Court judges went to private school, even though only seven per cent of the population do.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has said his mission is to make sure state schools set their standards “so high” that they become indistinguishable from the best fee-paying schools, with pupils given access to the sort of extra-curricular activities that are such a big part of the private sector. That will help, but only time will tell if it will be enough to truly open up opportunities for every child with talent, even if it doesn’t quite extend to penning novels that sell 80 million copies around the world.