"The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate."
Class. There, I've said it. The great unmentionable. For years we've been told by media commentators that it either no longer exists, or has ceased to matter. Well, it does now. Only thing is the government still won't use the word itself. "Social mobility" is the acceptable euphemism. Nevertheless, on a day when further irrefutable proof of this recession's severity is provided (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7828406.stm ), & at least one New Labour appointee invokes the spirit of Norman Lamont (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7828549.stm ), the issue is back with a vengeance.
It was therefore unfortunate that last night's edition of Newsnight treated the subject in a less than journalistically rigorous manner. David Grossman's report (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7828184.stm ) at least scratched the surface.
However, a piece by James Westhead on the same programme (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7828237.stm ) about three kids from Burnley, Lancashire, excluded from normal education, spending two days at Wellington College, Oxford, was of little benefit to the teenagers concerned, or the general Newsnight viewer. If anything, it warranted the adjective, voyeuristic; teenagers from a terminally deprived part of the country were taken to see how the other half live & are groomed for power. Their faces were well & truly rubbed in it. Newsnight had the opportunity to devote a whole programme to exploring the complex issues behind this subject. Instead, it fell back on a grotesque gimmick which only served to reinforce perceptions & prejudices.
On today's Comment is Free pages from the Guardian website, Anne Perkins identifies one of the main obstacles facing genuine social mobility (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/14/socialmobility-harrietharman ): "The middle classes are very good at protecting their privilege. Just look around at people in power. Bankers and newspaper editors (and journalists), many politicians, senior figures in the public services. Senior figures almost anywhere. If they were not born middle class, they learned pretty early on to behave as if they were. They got where they are because they had the skills, and in the early stages maybe the connections, to fit in. They were the kind of people that people already doing the most desirable jobs (well-paid, pensionable, warm and indoors) knew they'd get along with."
Allegra Stratton's piece on the Guardian's politics blog (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jan/14/socialmobility ) makes similar points. She also quotes one government minister who admits that getting 50% of children into university means that degrees are devalued; the Gold Standard of tertiary education loses its status. Something to bear in mind next Spring when the next batch of A-Level Pass figures are presented as A Good Thing.
*John Lennon, "Working Class Hero", 1971.