Ladders and greasy poles

Alan Milburn has been made the Czar of the greasy pole. It is time more was done to promote social mobility in Britain.

My advice to Alan is simple. Do not think the great Universities or the Armed Services want to recruit preponderantly former public school pupils, or that the answer is imposing targets or other demands on the recruitment services of the professions. I know from experience that an institution like Oxford Univeristy tries very hard to recruit from state schools and from the more deprived parts of the country.

The answer to that problem lies in the achievements and aspirations of the state schools. Alan needs to ensure that the poorer performing state schools have not just money, but esprit de corps, good leadership, and a sense that pupils from all backgrounds can make it if they put in the effort. He also needs to tell them that it does require a lot of hard work to excel at something. People are not given educational advantage by their father’s income alone. They also have to work hard at their better schools if they wish to reach the peaks of academic and professional life.

As someone who made it from a Council house as a young child to a Conservative Cabinet, I was grateful for the ladder of opportunity provided by a free place at a Direct Grant school and a scholarship to Oxford. The 1970s were much more class riven than the noughties. The Oxford place was a solvent of the worst of the clsss barriers. I am glad some of the obvious class divisions have been broken by the changes of the last 30 years, but am conscious that new obstacles have risen that make the journey more difficult for many today. My school did not have all the facilities of an Eton or a Westminster, but it did allow me the freedom to go to other local libraries to find the books I needed to read. Today young people have the amazing world of the web, which is a great leveller.

I am struck by the gap between the average state school and the best of the public schools when I go to speak to 6th formers. There is more intellectual curiosity, academic determination and confidence in the best public schools. It is that which Alan needs to replicate for the brighter pupils in the comprehensives. It is that that has been lost for some of them by the abolition of grammar schools.

My other piece of advcie is to see that educational success is not the only ladder of opportunity. He should turn to consider where entrepreneurs come from. Some of the most successful people I know have achieved a great deal despite or because they had little or no formal education after 16 or 18. They did it by setting up their own business and being successful at that. I suspect that a bigger proportion of the children of entrepreneurs set up in business for themselves than the proportion of the population as a whole. For many in state schools running your own business is not an option, and no-one suggests to them it might be. Schooling is a whirlwind of targets and exam grades, all so often failing to generate that spark of enthusiasm, ignite the passion or release the wild optimism that a good entrepreneur needs.

When you listen to the backgrounds of those who have achieved a great deal in their chosen fields, you often find they followed their chosen area as an interest or a way of life from a very early age. For them, their jobs are not just jobs, a but an integral part of who they are, and what they want to do. The famous antiques presenter on TV usually started collecting and reading about antiques as a boy or girl. The successful sportsman or woman was playing their sport from an early age. The successful academic was usually reading many books in their field well before they went to university. It is those many passions and interests that state schools need to encourage. The best already do, but there is work for Alan to initiaite to get more doing the same.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    January 12, 2009

    I’m honestly not certain that some of the current cabinet want to turn out intellectually curious individuals from state education. If your whole political philosophy was basically “the-state-knows-best” collectivism would you really want people equipped to say “No it doesn’t” or simply ask the question, Why? Surely a docile populace taught to watch any old dross on TV and unthinking, unquestioning compliance to any state official however petty, would make life easier for you. This maybe why more people are not utterly resistant to ID cards for example.

  2. Lola
    January 12, 2009

    Did you also hear him bang on about getting more ‘poor’ children into the professions, the law and acountancy for example? Please someone tell him that being a plumber say, is (a) just as worthwhile as being a lawyer, and that (b) most of the plumbers I know earn more than most of the lawyers I know.

    1. adam
      January 12, 2009

      Are there not industries dominated by the working class also?
      Football for example.
      I doubt these will get a mention

  3. Andy
    January 12, 2009

    Absolutely right. The educationalists and sociologists and ‘experts’ have condemned millions to lives of drudgery by dint of following ideology and not reality.
    I suspect you’ve already read All Must Have Prizes, but if not I recommend it.

    Incidentally, I came here via the Copper’s Blog where he describes you as ‘telling it like it is, instead of how we wish it was.’

  4. Letters From A Tory
    January 12, 2009

    Well said. The love of learning, the excitement surrounding business and entrepreneurship and the drive to be successful in life are all stunted by Labour’s education system.

    The Conservatives need to look at freeing up the curriculum as well as freeing up the state monopoly on school ownership if they are serious about dealing with this.

  5. rugfish
    January 12, 2009

    Years ago the 12 year old son of a friend of mine used to “sell” comics which he did himself. At 12 years old he was a “businessboy” and now has a flourishing online store which “employs” another friend of mine. He even sold homemade lemonade in the street.

    His mother and father run an online gifts store, whilst his father also runs his own electrical business. None of them went beyond secondary state education and are successful as a result of entrepreneurial skills of the kind you describe.

    I also rose from rags to riches myself, despite I attended further education, and despite I wasted many years earning other people money when I could have earned my own much earlier. I was glad when I made the break as I would likely now be under threat of redundancy instead of being retired 15 years sooner than my other mate who still works for the council 30 years after attending university.

    1. rugfish
      January 12, 2009

      Incidentally, I forgot to add that my mate at the council never stops telling us how to run our lives because he went to university and knows a lot more than us about a lots more things like charging people for things they don’t want or need and banning things we do want and need.

  6. Coeur de Lion
    January 12, 2009

    Just a minor point, but watching a daytime chat show yesterday, I was struck by the schoolteachers who pointed to the sadly high proportion of parents who apparently didn’t care a toss about their children’s progress, their weak attendance at PTA meetings etc etc. The ‘middle-class’ perpetuates itself by stimulating its children.

    1. Lola
      January 12, 2009

      If they paid, they’d be interested. People don’t value that which is provided for ‘free’.

      1. alan jutson
        January 12, 2009

        How true this is in many cases in other areas as well as education.

        We want a free quote !!!!!
        We would like your advice !!!!!!
        We would like your thoughts and ideas !!!!

        Who do they think pays for all of this ???

        The answer: Customers who purchase.

        No surprise that many shops will go out of business, with many now buying over the web, having first picked the brains of those who have products in their shops.

        Before someone says well thats business, I know it is, but in time if you take it to its logical conclusion, and we all do as above, you will have no specialist shops left to visit.

        A retail outlet by definition has more overheads than a warehouse/shed in the middle of a field.

        Manufacturers should think about this carefully with their pricing structure to the trade, otherwise some market brands may dissapear from the high street altogether.

  7. backofanenvelope
    January 12, 2009

    I went to a Secondary Modern school, followed by two years at a College of Further Education. Into the RAF, retiring as a senior officer. When I left school in 1953, there was a perfectly good system in place; it just needed more resources.

    My message to the Tories is quite simple. Re-instate the 11+; re-instate the assisted places scheme; build more grammar schools and bring back the technical schools.

    It is no good expecting The Great Helmsman to do any of this because it would mean admitting he has been wrong!

  8. Chuck Unsworth
    January 12, 2009

    It’s about motivation. That’s all. Trouble is that many sections of society are completely de-motivated – for a whole series of reasons.
    Frankly, Milburn’s job is a complete waste of time in an economic downturn. If anything, Class mobility rapidly decreases under these circumstances.
    And anyway, this is a political posture. It’s the old Class War gambit which has virtually nothing to do with with equality of opportunity and everything to do with gesture politics.
    Just how long would it take do you suppose for any action by Milburn, however radical, to have the slightest effect on the situation? A decade? Two decades?
    Long after the next General Election, then.

  9. Guthrum
    January 12, 2009

    Sadly State schools do not encourage passion, they want conformist drones.

    Step outside the norm of allowable thought processes, means sliding down a couple of centrally set targets

  10. Tim
    January 12, 2009

    Grammar schools and technical schools did and to a limited extent still do offer a greater oppurtunity for children for poorer backgrounds to get an excellent education and head start in life.

  11. adam
    January 12, 2009

    i think the idea of 50% or 100% going to university is wrong.
    Fine it pumps more debt into the economy and helps the alcohol industry, but university should be reserved for people who really know what they want to do with their life.

  12. john locke
    January 12, 2009

    When are politicians going to realise it is not a question of public versus state schools. It is a question of good education. If the state school produced the right calibre of student they could just as well lift themselves to any profession/career they wanted.

    The problem is that this present government has ruined the education system with their endless meddling and lowering of standards, just to enable them the “fix the figures and pretend that today’s pupils are brighter than the previous generation under the Tories.

    I was born in a “prefab” lived all my school days in a council house but with the 11+ was able to receive a great education, and had a happy and enriching career. I was successful enough to retire early from business life, moved abroad and now give something back as a University Professor giving this generation the benefit of my vast experience. I am not interested in which school my students come from, I am only interested in their intelligence and intellectual rigour. It is all down to “educational standards” and I hope the first thing a Conservative government will do is to abolish league tables and the st

  13. john locke
    January 12, 2009

    (ooops finger slipped…)

    ………and state interference and let the teachers give the children a first class education to equip them for the 21st century.

  14. Jeremy Poynton
    January 12, 2009

    Backofanevelope beat me to it; I’m 57, so remember well the three tier higher education system we had in place, CFEs, Polys and Universities. A system which worked well and served the country and those who went through whichever layer well. The disastrous requirement to keep as many kids in secondary education as long as possible and then to put as many of them through the University Of Really Bad Courses & Teachers means we no longer have skilled workforce.

    Even were this righted overnight, we are still looking at a generation for this to filter through

    1. DiscoveredJoys
      January 12, 2009

      …if it is going to take a generation then the sooner we start the better.

      Grammar schools worked for me and there are almost certainly other ways too – but we know that what we have now (through state provision) is incapable of delivering what is needed.

      My old grammar school aimed at producing decent, well-educated boys – in that order. I suspect that moral relativism has done more damage than poor factual teaching. You can always look facts up, but finding examples of good grown up behaviour to live up to is a tougher challenge.

  15. mikestallard
    January 12, 2009

    Here are three real monsters for Mr Milburn to slay:
    1. Quality of teachers. This is abysmal at the moment in our local school. For a start, any male teacher is, almost by definition, in very grave danger of being seen as a pervert nowadays. Like Scoutmasters, they have all but disappeared in our local Primary Schools.
    2. In Secondary Schools, all too often, the stress is on anything but scholarship and love of the subject for itself. Scholarly people, clever people who loved their subject were dismissed in droves when Comprehensive Schools came in. They never have come back. Schools find it very hard to enthuse pupils if the teachers themselves are ignoramuses.
    3. Teaching has always been a compact between the teachers and their class. It is a deal that both sides have to accept. That deal is breaking down fast here in our local Comprehensive. People talk about “discipline” and so on. No. A good schooling is a matter of mutual trust and a strong desire to improve and get the best out of people. This, of course, is judged, especially among boys, by competition, public results, and public rewards at the end of a fair testing process. These are pretty well all out of favour at the moment.
    If Mr Milburn would address even one of these monsters, he would work a miracle.
    He isn’t going to.
    What I really hope he is not going to do is to introduce some sort of Labour Party Quota system where compliant idiots get their hands on key jobs – much as they have in the Labour party.
    Obama said: “Yes We Can!”
    I strongly suspect this is a case of “No You Can’t”.

  16. Stuart Fairney
    January 12, 2009

    And speaking of the poorly educated propagandist, the choice of the name is perhaps unfortunate since the Czars were not exactly notorious for their commitment to social mobility?

  17. Jack Maturin
    January 12, 2009

    I would have thought that the route for state schools to become as good as private schools would be fairly obvious, especially to any believer in the free market, and that is to privatise them all.

    Just think of the enormous flood of resources it would release. We could sack everyone in London picking up a Whitehall handout from the department of education and we could sack every deadbeat skulking inside every local education authority. We would have bad teachers being sacked for incompetence, bad schools being closed down by market forces, and good teachers, good schools, and good education companies flourishing.

    We would have diversity, scholarly achievement, and a fantastic competitive breeding ground for massive entrepreneurship, all out from under the dead conforming hand of Milburn’s social engineers.

    Oh, and we could sack Milburn too, which must be a bonus.

  18. Mark Sullivan
    January 12, 2009

    Well as a trainee teacher I can only say there is not a lot I can argue with here, but there are a few quotes I might be including in my next essay!

    p.s. the only caveat I’d have with some of the commentators is that there are a lot of good teachers out there (not all, obviously) but the Ofsted rankings are quite rigorous, & the hours of practice teaching, observations and study at university is also quite a rigorous discipline. It’s easy to carp from afar, harder to get involved and do your best to improve things.

  19. […] John Redwood sets Alan Milburn straight about the task that awaits […]

    January 12, 2009

    2 thoughts…

    1. INDEPENDENT STYLE EDUCATION…FREE OF CHARGE is the would-be conservative message we’ve advocated since 2004.
    Simply put those basics work as Council Estate ‘oiks’ like ourseves, with backgrounds similar to JR’s, can testify.
    Uniforms, discipline, sports activities and esprit de corps helped give us enjoy more fulfilled lives than our respective supportive parents which was reward enough for them – bless ’em all!
    The State school system should be modified accordingly instead of trying to drag the independent and grammar schools down to state school levels as seems the ambition of Mr Balls.
    Believe us, Mr Milburn, as successful businessmen with happy family lives but from poor backgrounds we 4 are living examples of social mobility at its most effective!

    2. THE TRADE ROUTE TO BEING YOUR OWN BOSS! We should let youngsters know that one of the best ways to get to run a business and have a successful life is to learn a trade rather than go to Uni like so many others who don’t know what they want to do in life. Promote it as the SMART school leavers option!

  21. Simon
    January 12, 2009

    From what I see any spark of individual thought is crushed in State Schools, any sign of self confidence is undermined and a general culture of total control exists. Teachers make only negative comments on those ghastly diaries and nit pick the slightest thing that could be described as bad behaviour. Children are thrown out of schools at unprecedented rates for the slightest misdemeanour. All part of the general demonisation of young people in this country as described in reports from UNICEF, The Princes Trust and Barnardo’s, even The One Show did a report on it recently. If you keep telling people they are bad they will certainly prove you right.

    1. Jack Maturin
      January 13, 2009

      I think a lot of people who pay for private education are under the mistaken impression that it ‘gives children confidence’. I think this is the wrong way round. As someone who survived a ghastly northern comprehensive, it’s more that state schools ‘destroy your confidence’.
      What private schools do is to ‘preserve’ the confidence of children, that already pre-exists, and which children already possess from a pre-school age.
      As we can see from the latest horrible state teaching adverts, the message from Whitehall is that they would like the following sorts of applicants: Morons, busy bodies, and control freaks – preferably all three in one package, if they can get it.
      The only way to survive in a state school is to obey, conform, and become part of the group. Peer pressure isolates non-conformist individuals and then crushes them; teachers practice crowd-control rather than individual teaching; and the general run-down condition of most state schools encourages an atmosphere of inevitable despair, anger, and frustration.
      Privatising them all is the only really answer. We must get the government out of our schools completely. Anything else is just re-arranging deck chairs.

    2. adam
      January 13, 2009

      you live in lalaland.
      dont believe UNICEF

  22. no one
    January 13, 2009

    ramping up the quality of schools on the worst public housing and inner city areas would be one of the best ways of encouraging some “good” in our society, and allowing poor kids to be funded through university without having to take out loans, sadly despite the rhetoric these schools remain terrible for many reasons, one such reason being if you were a half decent teacher would you work there? no didn’t think you would
    public schools do put a positive spin on things which in a state school would be frowned upon, you only have to read Ranulph Fiennes autobiography to know that in a public school climbing the highest school roofs can lead to a career as an army officer and climber, the very clever kids at my school with similar talent for climbing the highest roofs were ARRESTED – there you see in one simple example how life is so different for both sets of kids
    I don’t subscribe to the Michael Rose sentiments that “the reason so many senior military officers are ex public schools is because those schools produce the best leaders” clap trap either, on the contrary mostly useless public school officers are carried by hard working ex state kids around them, and they only do well due to the network they get, and the self selecting perceptions of the idiots higher up
    the selection at state schools by postcode rather than ability is the worst of all worlds, you get in the best state schools because your pushy parents can afford more expensive housing, this is the most damaging form of selection imaginable
    I’ve had public school folk and Oxbridge grads work for me many times, never been impressed really, but I certainly offered them more impartial and balanced opportunities than they (as a group on average) offer folk with my accent
    one of the best parts of working in the USA was the most senior management would not instantly judge you on your accent, they just didn’t understand the significance, and rather they judged folk on substance rather than presentation – the sooner the UK move to that the better – for out current default often subconscious approach is very weak and bad for us all
    not many working class accents amongst Conservative MP’s or front benchers, does not give the impression much of this is going to be helped by Conservatives, when really the party should empower folk from the worst estates as Mrs T did!
    these issues and more need sorting

  23. FatBigot
    January 13, 2009

    Let me hazard a guess at what Mr Milburn and his merry men will say.

    It is hard to believe that this new super-quango will be concerned with the real issues identified in your piece, Mr Redwood, and in many of the comments. To do so would be to seek to assess the last 11 years of government education policy. That cannot be his task. He cannot have been appointed with a view to saying his old friend Tony and his new friend Gordon have presided over a disaster.

    My guess is that they will look at the professions themselves rather than at the quality of those aspiring to enter them. We can expect targets and regulation, forms, more forms and new local quangos to investigate and report on how well firms of solicitors, accountants and architects are conforming to the new regime.

    The sad thing about it is that some young people will be taken on in professional practices despite not having the skills and motivation to do the work to a decent standard. They will not benefit and nor will the firms, but an annual appraisal form will include a tick in the box marked “diversity” or is it “inclusion” or is it “social justice”?

    Even sadder is that those very same young people might well have been able to cope had they received a strong academic education of the type you and I, and many thousands of others, received despite coming from homes of very modest means.

  24. Bazman
    January 13, 2009

    Kings, castles and dirty rascals.

    A political elite mesmerised or brought up in great wealth putting forward policies that will have little or no impact on their personal lives.
    Not everyone can be a rocket scientist, self employed or a big boss. The size of the underclass in Britain is a scandal they just grab and do what they like as that is what a lot of the middle classes do.
    Self respect? It’s over rated.

  25. Robbie
    January 13, 2009

    I come from a working class background and a broken family (my father left home when I was seven years old and we were left very poor).

    I studied hard and went on to study mathematics at Oxford and a computer science masters degree at Cambridge. This was twelve years ago. I never once felt that either of these institutions were biased against people from a poor background in any way. The dons admired anyone who took a great interest in learning and worked hard.

    Yet another expensive box ticking agency counting numbers of poor students making it to university, crying foul and then forcing numbers through by positive discrimination is not the solution, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we ended up with it.

    1. adam
      January 13, 2009

      good post

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