Jayne Dowle: Opportunities knocked as life chances revert to 1946

Kate Winslet, the focus of a new debate on social mobility, poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture for Steve Jobs at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards.
Kate Winslet, the focus of a new debate on social mobility, poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture for Steve Jobs at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards.
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CHILDREN born today have less chance of bettering their lives than those born in 1946. Even in the tough years after the Second World War when rationing was still in force, housing was substandard and poverty rife, a child who came into the world then had more opportunities to move on – and move up in the world.

A new book on the Life Project, a pioneering study designed to track the lives of British babies born in 1946 and subsequent generations, has found that life-chances have contracted rather than expand in the past 70 years.

A child from a modest home today finds options for education, travel and property ownership to be seriously limited in comparison to those of their great-grandparents.

How can this be? And how can we call this progress?

It is tempting – as always – to blame the parents. If you want to be judgemental, start making a list that encompasses everything in the home from the presence of two parents, healthy food and the wide availability of reading books.

I know parents on very limited means who strive to offer the very best grounding for their children. How heart-breaking to realise that whatever such mothers and fathers dohelp their offspring, society today will not give their youngsters the chances they deserve.

This is the uncomfortable truth. Instead of expanding, our society is contracting. Since the 1970s – when I was young – generations of British children have grown up in a country defined by shambolic education policies, unemployment, the benefits culture, a shrinking industrial base and a property market which puts home ownership out of reach.

Governments have come and governments have gone. Yet none has managed to reverse the trend; social mobility has continued on its dogged downwards spiral. I don’t think there is a politician alive who could halt this. It would require a super-human Colossus.

When I think of the sterling work that former Labour Minister Alan Milburn did on social mobility, and take my hat off in respect to Iain Duncan Smith’s attempts to tackle state benefits, I despair.

It’s simple. An ever-shrinking elite is getting the top jobs, and therefore the best opportunities. And the biggest divide of all is education. A recent survey from the Sutton Trust, a charity which campaigns for better educational opportunities for all, finds that one in three Members of Parliament were privately educated – as are half the members of the Conservative Cabinet.

Even on Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow front bench, 13 per cent went to an independent school. Nationally, the figure is just seven per cent. And then we expect Government to represent our interests and make informed decisions on our behalf?

It’s not just politics though. Media, law, medicine and the higher echelons of the Armed Forces are all dominated by those who studied at public school. And increasingly, the world of entertainment tells a tale of divide; 67 per cent of recent British Oscar winners were also privately educated, including old Etonian Eddie Redmayne and Kate Winslet.

I know a young woman from South Yorkshire who is studying at theatre school in London. It costs her parents thousands upon thousands of pounds a year to keep her there. This sacrifice is blighting their own lives financially and casting a dark shadow over their retirement plans.

There is no public subsidy for theatre school. The sums are clear: If you can’t afford it, you can’t go. No wonder Britain is mocked for producing a string of “posh boy” actors.

How different it was in the dark days of the 1970s. I sometimes think that we were the last generation with hope. Born in 1967, I was lucky enough to reach adulthood when higher education was still funded, when it was financially possible – just – to move out of home and set up on my own, in London, and when no-one had told me that certain careers were out of my reach.

Now what I see surrounding my own children’s generation is a massive cloud of negativity. It breaks my heart. If I could have one wish for them, it would to give them hope. When I was 14, there was nothing weird for me about planning a future that involved university. I was ambitious to leave my home town of Barnsley. I wanted to explore the world, and with my savings from my Saturday job, and the backing of my parents, I was set to go. My partner, growing up around the same time in the same town, left school with one O-Level – in Art – passed his apprenticeship as a bricklayer and set off at 21 to work in Germany and Ireland.

Both of us came from modest homes. Both of us had very different experiences, yet neither of us saw barriers. Yet, when I speak to my son’s friends today, it is difficult to find one who has ventured as far as Sheffield on their own. Somewhere along the line, society has knocked the stuffing out of their generation. They are afraid to try because they are afraid to fail in a cruel world with the odds against them. If this is progress, we need to think long and hard about where it is taking us.