Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why has British social mobility declined?

For once I agree with Britain's famously Green/Left "Viewspaper", ironically called "The Independent". Their article below concludes that education is the key to social mobility and that British social mobility has declined from what it once was. They do not however go the extra step and face the fact that Britain's dumbed-down educational system MUST lead to reduced social mobility.

Only a high quality education for all or elite schools where selection is on ability only (which the Grammar schools once were) could give the capable children of the poor roughly equal opportunites to the children of the rich. The children of the rich will always go to good (mostly private) schools but the dumbing down of government schools in recent years has deprived the children of the poor of similar opportunities. The reduced social mobility in Britain in recent years is in fact GOOD EVIDENCE of the decay in British government-provided education.

But the Leftist fervour for equality was the aim of the dumbing down of government schooling in the first place. You cannot make everybody into high achievers so the only way to create some semblance of equality is to dumb everybody down to one low level. So the policy has succeeded in its aims. Those aims are not however consistent with giving full opportunity to the more capable children of the poor. Short of a Soviet-style red revolution, the present policies of equality in fact entrench existing social divisions

Why are we talking about social mobility?

New research confirms the image of Britain as a relatively rigid society. There is proportionately more chance that, if you're born poor in Britain, you'll stay poor. Academics, supported by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, have been following the changing fortunes of samples of children born in 1958 and in 1970. The group born earlier are doing relatively better in terms of "life chances": "Early indications are that the decline in social mobility for those growing up between the 1970s and 1980s reflects a strong episode of worsening social mobility that was not seen before or since. The trend of worsening has stopped, but the UK remains very low in the developed-world rankings and faces a serious challenge if social mobility is to be promoted."

Gordon Brown has made opportunity one of his themes, declaring in his leadership speech that: "Wherever we find opportunity denied, aspirations unfulfilled, potential unrealised; wherever and whenever we find injustice and unfairness, there we must be also - and it is our duty to act."

In the 1980s, the Conservatives were the party of social mobility; from Essex Man buying his council house and shares in the privatised utilities to the yuppies in the City. The Conservatives have recently become interested in the upwardly mobile again. They controversially changed their policy on grammar schools because they doubted their contribution to mobility. According to front bencher David Willetts, "stark figures" about declining mobility "have exposed our complacent belief that British society is inexorably becoming more socially mobile ... our schools are entrenching social advantage".

Both Tony Blair and the former Conservative prime minister, Michael Howard, talked about a "British dream", a version of the American dream, where a baby born in a log cabin can make it to the White House. The fact that the Conservative leader, David Cameron, is an Old Etonian, and has become popularly thought of as being fond of "hugging hoodies", has also prompted more interest in the issue.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is the extent to which a child's social status can alter through the course of their life. It also relates to how easy it is for a child born to parents in one social class to wind up in another class. Social mobility, however, can exist side by side with vast differences in wealth (indeed, some claim such disparities amount to an incentive for the diasadvantaged). A society with equality of opportunity can be one where there is little "equality of outcome". In reality, societies that are less unequal in the first place tend to have fewer opportunities for individuals to leap class barriers.

How unequal are we?

In terms of income and wealth, we're more unequal than for decades, with the very rich (average incomes in excess of œ500,000) now pulling further away from the merely prosperous. In terms of equality of opportunity, if you were born in 1970 into the poorest quarter of the population, there's a 37 per cent chance you'll be staying there; for those born in 1958, there was only a 31 per cent chance of remaining in that stratum. But ...

Are we becoming more unequal?

Yes and no. We're no longer feudal, after all; the age of deference has long gone; women and ethnic minorities enjoy legal protections and there is, probably, less snobbery and prejudice around than before the Second World War. Sociologists have found that there has previously been little "long-range" mobility in Britain for people born between 1900 and 1960.

An Oxford University study reported that then only about 10 per cent of boys from working-class backgrounds ended up in the professional classes. Post-Second World War, the rise of the "meritocracy", much hyped in the 1960s, appears to have stalled. Although there was a decline in mobility between those born in 1958 and those born in 1970, matters did not get worse for children born through the rest of the 1970s and 1980s: "it appears that the downward trend in social mobility has halted."

Even so, while for those born in the early 1980s the gap narrowed between those staying on in education at age 16, inequality of access to university education has widened further. The proportion of people from the poorest fifth of families obtaining a degree has increased from 6 per cent to 9 per cent, but the graduation rates for the richest fifth have risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.

Measures such as SureStart, reforms in schools and child tax credits might have improved mobility since 1997, but it's too early to tell. Differences in life chances for people from different ethnic origins, reflected in their very different representation in the various social groups, persist strongly.

Immigrants to the UK have historically been downwardly mobile. Many first-generation Commonwealth migrants during the 20th century were forced to take manual jobs in the UK, having held white-collar positions in their country of birth. So most minority ethnic groups show high levels of children moving into a higher class than their parents, consistent with the idea that their parents suffered downward mobility on arrival in Britain.

Ethnic minorities are more likely to be socially mobile (in both directions) than the white population. Whereas 57 per cent of the white population were found not to be mobile in a census study, this dropped to 42 per cent for those of Indian origin and 37 per cent for Pakistanis, both groups seeing broadly equal rates of upward and downward mobility.

How does Britain compare internationally?

The Sutton Trust researchers found that the UK is bottom of the table of advanced countries for which there is data. Although the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in Britain those gaps are getting wider.

Does money matter?

Yes, but not as much as some might think. According to the Sutton Trust researchers, "While it is clear that family income differences between the rich and the poor do have a big impact on children's educational outcome, the estimated impact of income is modest relative to the large differences in attainment between children from richer and poorer families. Consequently, while reducing child poverty can have some benefits, policies to increase intergenerational mobility will need to focus on raising poorer children's attainment through targeted services and access to the best schools.

So what's the key to social mobility?

Education would seem to be the consensual answer, although there is huge disagreement on whether structures, standards or spending make the difference. The Sutton Trust study states: "The strength of the relationship between educational attainment and family income, especially for access to higher education, is at the heart of Britain's low mobility culture and what sets us apart from other European and North American countries." Common sense tell us that if the poorest children in the worst housing are sent to the worst schools then they're unlikely to prosper. On that, the academics and politicians seem to agree.


Filthy British government hospitals that won't come clean

Keeping a hospital clean does not require a lot of money or complicated equipment. It does require will. It requires someone to exercise authority and take responsibility

In the same week that saw the Conservative party announce its plans for the National Health Service came news that one in four NHS organisations in England is failing to comply with basic hygiene standards. Survey after survey reveals that patients are more concerned about catching an infection in hospital than any other issue.

The rise of the hospital superbug is the visible sign of a bureaucracy in crisis. Cases of MRSA in England and Wales have increased by 600% in the past decade alone, according to government figures. Britain has one of the worst records in Europe. The danger of contracting a bug here is more than 15 times higher than the next safest countries. Hospital-acquired infection (HAI) affects 300,000 people a year, claiming as many as 20,000 lives, with more than 5,000 a year dying of hospital superbugs such as MRSA.

Keeping a hospital clean does not require money or complicated equipment. It does require will. It requires someone to exercise authority and take responsibility. Florence Nightingale understood this when she cut the fatality rate of wounded soldiers from 40% to just 5% by imposing basic standards of hygiene and sanitation. She organised her nurses on almost military lines and subjected them to military discipline.

What do we have instead? One former matron, now in audit work, pointed out the difficulty of disciplining a nurse for incompetence in the NHS today. Modern management is meant to "nurture" its employees. "You can't bawl them out or they'll sue you for harassment," she explained. Instead, "in a nice, soft voice, you have to ask if that was the way she had been taught? Did she consider it appropriate?"

The hospitals I visited during a year's research appeared helpless to do anything about their wards and staff. A sister in charge of a ward has little say in how her ward is cleaned, when it is done or by whom. Certainly she has no power to discipline cleaners. All she can do is complain to the cleaning manager who deals with the outside contract cleaners.

One Filipina nurse complained: "No one tells the cleaner to change their water when it gets dirty. If you don't stipulate in the contract that the water should be changed four times when you wash a particular ward, they won't do it." She was shocked that her NHS hospital had no night cleaners as they do in the Philippines, she said.

NHS staff themselves often fail to take the risk of HAI seriously. At a hospital board meeting I attended, a consultant admitted: "I don't get stroppy with staff if they do not wash their hands." "I do," replied another doctor. "But you are a surgeon," pointed out the first, "and I am just a gentle physician." Stroppiness is not seen as a virtue in the NHS.

I was standing outside a side room, containing a patient with MRSA, talking to a matron and a nurse manager from infection control. Earlier I had been shown the apron and glove dispenser at the entrance of the room. Every nurse is supposed to put these on before touching the patient, then remove them before leaving the room. Suddenly I noticed a nurse walk in, see to the patient and then depart. She had not, despite the presence of her matron and infection control manager, touched the dispenser.

Neither woman appeared to notice. In my astonishment I interrupted them. Had I misunderstood? Was I being very stupid? It appeared not. The matron tut-tutted. "You've got to have eyes in the back of your head with these girls," she said. The infection control manager nodded sympathetically. "Doctors are far worse," she added. There was no question of a reprimand, let alone the sack.

Compare this with the enforcement of health and safety legislation elsewhere. One industrial chemist, who found himself a patient of the NHS, was horrified when he witnessed a similar scene. He would have been sacked on the spot for not wearing the protective clothing or equipment provided by his employers. NHS health and safety legislation, so powerful that it can close down a hospital, does not - as the chief executive of one hospital pointed out to me - even include infection control.

So will "autonomy and accountability", the Conservative proposals for NHS reform, do anything about our dirty buckets? The main feature of the report is how little it differs from Labour's own NHS reforms.

Patients, the Conservatives promise, can choose to be treated in the private or public sector as long as the cost is the same or below that of the NHS. If the cost is higher, patients cannot top up the NHS with their own money. This is exactly what many might wish to do when they discover how the rates of HAI in the private sector compare with the NHS. Infection rates for hysterectomies, for example, vary between 0.74% to 2.8% in private hospitals. In the NHS they are as high as 11%.

It is almost impossible for patients to make that comparison. Private hospitals include the information on their websites or are happy to give it over the phone. The matron of one told me proudly that its rate was 0% per 10,000 beds: "We often get inquiries and quite rightly so. I would want to know." In the NHS the Healthcare Commission provides information on trusts but not on individual hospitals.

Even an NHS GP found it difficult to discover such information. He explained that patients are on the "choose and book" system, but choice was restricted to locality only.

The Tories agree that standards of information in the NHS are "lamentable". They promise to provide the public with information on the "prevalence" of HAI - not only hospital by hospital, but also department by department. This information is vital. Competition and patient choice will do more than any government policy to force good practice up through the management hierarchy of the NHS.

Meanwhile, we have allowed authority to absent itself where it should be all important. Any politician contemplating healthcare reform must start with the basics. And the basics are a clean pair of hands.


BBC employs Hamas member: "Despite Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) opposition and per the request of the BBC, the coordinator of government activities allowed a Hamas member who works for the BBC to enter the Gaza Strip last week to assist in efforts to release kidnapped journalist Alan Johnston. Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post that a week ago, a request came from the BBC asking that a Palestinian employee of the news company who is believed to be a close associate of senior Hamas officials be allowed to enter Gaza."

Comment on the hypocritical British boycotters of Israel: "The PACBI boycotters and their UCU fellow travellers would deny to Jews the rights that they upholds for other, comparable peoples. They adhere to the principle of national self-determination, except in the Jews' case. They affirm international law, except in Israel's case. They are outraged by the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, but are untroubled (say) by the Islamic nature of Iran or of Saudi Arabia. They regard Zionism as uniquely pernicious, rather than as merely another nationalism (just as earlier generations of anti-Semites regarded Jewish capitalists as uniquely pernicious, rather than merely as members of the capitalist class). They are indifferent to Jewish suffering, while being sensitive to the suffering of non-Jews. They dismiss anti-Semitism as a phantasm exploited by Jews to pursue their own goals."

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