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What will create a fairer society?

Posted on 06 April 2011
Tags: BSA, British Social Attitudes, fair society, social and political attitudes

The coalition government's social mobility strategy is in many ways a great piece of social science. Full of compelling insight (much of it pre-existing, but nothing wrong with that), clearly presented, and deserving of a considered read. Understandably, many commentators are already questioning whether the policies underpinning the strategy will actually oil the wheels of social mobility when money is so tight. And Nick Clegg - or rather, his team - really should have predicted that someone would remember that that the Deputy Prime Minister had himself benefited from internships in the past.

At heart, the strategy aims to make society fairer. But what does the public actually think a fair society looks like? And how do they think Britain is currently doing?

Some of the answers might surprise you. In some ways, the public believes that we already live in a meritocracy. What do people believe the single most important factor is in getting on in life? Answer: hard work. 84% think this is essential or very important. What else is important? Ambition. (71%) . Surely the government can't legislate for hard work and ambition?

But there is one other vital factor in the top three, and it's here that the government really has a role: a good education (74%).

Much less important (at 33%) is 'knowing the right people'. And this is down from 39% in 1987. So the British public doesn't seem to be moaning too much about whether their parents found them an internship from someone at the golf club.

Second, as Michael Young worried about in his much misunderstood satire 'The Rise of the Meritocracy' : a meritocracy is all very well, but what about those who aren't talented and able? Are we just going to leave them on the scrap heap? The public is bothered about this too. When you ask them what a fair society would look like, the most popular model is a diamond shape: 58% choose a model in which there aren't very many people at the top or bottom of the pile, and with most of us somewhere in the middle. So that's the ideal.

But given five possible models, a pyramid is the most common choice in response to the question about what society is currently like in practice. 38% think society currently has most people stuck at the bottom, and only 20% think society is the fairer diamond shape.

So hard work and ambition clearly isn't translating into a fair society after all. That would suggest that the public really cares about the third factor: that our kids get a great education. And given since we know that disadvantage starts early in life, and multiplies through the life course (see the earlier National Equality Panel analysis for further evidence here), the coalition government will be judged by the public on what happens to children's centres around the country; whether initiatives such as the pupil premium make a difference to enough kids; and whether increased university tuition fees act as a barrier for less well off students .

We aren't currently seeing many signs that the coalition government will commission much primary research to evaluate policy. That's disappointing. But, at the same time, it really is to be applauded that the social mobility strategy comes complete with a measurement report card. That is brave, given how tough it has proved to increase social mobility. The social science community, media, politicians, commentators and the public should keep a close eye on the report card.  It does have real potential to nudge - or perhaps push - the government into more action if the current policies do not result in a fairer society.

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