How do we give all our children the same chance to thrive?

Babies at an antenatal class. Is it this age where life's divisions begin to tell? Photograph © Scott Symonds on Flickr
Babies at an antenatal class. Is it this age where life’s divisions begin to tell? Photograph © Scott Symonds on Flickr

Kay Silversides considers ways we can remove the roadblocks of inequality to open up every life path to our children

Recently some stats from a survey that we conducted with parents about their experiences of early parenthood were included within the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s State of the Nation report 2015. One finding that made me stop and think was that parents in lower socio-economic groups were much less likely to access antenatal classes or education.

Parents in higher socio-economic groups were, unsurprisingly, more likely to be paying to attend antenatal groups such as the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). Their main reason for doing so was not to learn about the mechanics of childbirth – but to access a group of ‘like-minded’ people.

In the context of cuts to free Children’s Centre services and antenatal support, this demonstrates how the building blocks of cultural capital – a key vehicle of social mobility – begin to stack up at the very earliest opportunity for the babies of more prosperous parents.

The ‘poshness test’

By adulthood, the impact is easily seen. Earlier SMCPC research evaluated non-educational  ‘cultural’ barriers to the elite professions. This found that current definitions of ‘talent’ could arguably be closely mapped on to socioeconomic status, including middle-class norms and behaviours – simply known as the poshness test.

As one ‘working class’ interviewee employed within an elite profession described….

I… very, very, very rarely talk about my background. And people would assume certainly that I went to private school and I came through the system in the normal way. Because it’s embarrassing, right, to say that you didn’t come from a middle class background? It’s embarrassing to say, it shouldn’t be, but it is…

Even seemingly hardwired personality traits such as introversion or extroversion also appear to be linked to social mobility, as a Sutton Trust study  found.

People from more advantaged backgrounds (those whose parents had professional jobs) had significantly higher levels of extroversion and very substantially higher economic aspirations. These confident, sociable and assertive people had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year).

Poverty – the main culprit

Before we go any further, let’s not forget poverty is the main brake on social mobility. And as the income gap widens, ‘social difference’ on the ground becomes more distinct.

A New Economics Foundation study Inequality in Elmbridge depicts life in the Surrey town of Elmbridge which has one of the biggest gaps between haves and have nots in the UK. The research found that, increasingly, people at different ends of the income spectrum don’t mix. As, David, a low income resident, explained:

I never grew up feeling that somebody was better than me or better off than me, so much as I do now. I didn’t used to think Burwood Park was too good for me to walk through, or that people there were too good for me to talk to.

Gareth, a high income resident, could visualise this division from the early years:

Somebody who lives on a gated estate is not going to socialise with somebody who lives in a council estate. Mixing children is an opportunity but I don’t see the children of somebody who lives in a council estate going to attend birthday parties on the gated estate.

The Nordic way

author-helen-russell
Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly

The Nordic countries are not without social divisions, but here the income gap is much narrower.  In Denmark, the richest ten per cent earn 5.2 times more than the poorest ten per cent, the lowest ratio among all OECD nations – compare this with the UK’s 10.5.

And this translates into how people interact on a daily basis. Helen Russell in her book, The Year of Living Danishly, observed the Danes in their natural habitat. She was struck by how people from all walks of life socialised together on a regular basis – cleaners playing tennis with doctors – hard to imagine in Elmbridge.

Nordic culture also brings us Jante Law – a concept which has one over-arching message: You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us. This unspoken affirmation of the importance of equality permeates everyday interactions – perhaps we could take some inspiration from it.

Three conclusions

So what are we to take away from this, how does it all link together, and why does it matter?

  1. Social mobility matters because income inequality exists.  It is only when the peaks and troughs of inequality are thrown into sharp relief that the issue of social mobility becomes so important. In a more equal society there is less drive to be socially mobile – we are happy where we are.
  2. Growing income inequality affects how people interact every day, and not for the better.
  3. Deficits in cultural capital start early. Children from poorer families need better access to a wider range of opportunities – but perhaps more importantly, as a society we need to encourage a new narrative of equality from the early years.It is time we stopped our children growing up to believe that they are only worth as much as they earn, or that some paths in life are not for them.