What’s In A Word: Should owners of unicorns be worried?

If you listen to politicians often enough, if you spend any time on Twitter, you’ll become worn down by words and phrases that crop up again and again; the same over-familiarity is true if you engage yourself into any discussion on any given topic.  My “area of interest” is Social Justice and Education and the frequency of a couple of particular phrases and words that stick in my craw are ‘Social Mobility’ and ‘Aspirations’.  Both seem innocuous enough, loaded with good meaning sentiment even, but are they really? Obviously, I think not.

Taking Social Mobility to start with, I was personally overjoyed to see Matthew Taylor of the RSA calling time on the notion of Social Mobility but it is a notion that is not so easily laid to rest. I understand that people like the notion and I understand why cynical people use it to paste over inactivity. It sounds good if you say that you are pursuing policies that will further Social Mobility but you might as well be committing to raising taxation on owners of unicorns. If you were George Osborne (and I would not wish that on anyone … apart from George Osborne) then it would have been great to have been able to stand up in the House of Commons after the debacle of the Google tax payoff and put the public’s collective mind at ease because he was committed to raising taxes on those indulgent unicorn owners.

“For far too long unicorn owners have cocked their snoots at the rest of the hard working tax payers and, rest assured, the free ride is over.”

For the well meaning people, Social Mobility represents the opportunities for people to be rewarded for the hard work they put in to raise themselves out of the socioeconomic circumstances they were born into. It’s a commendable idea but it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense and it also, inadvertently, endorses an idea that poorer socioeconomic circumstances are inevitable and it is acceptable to subject some people to them. Social Mobility ignores the pervading influence of cumulative socioeconomic advantage and the cumulative advantage of those with greater social capital because it pretends that you can create conditions that can negate the impact of cumulative socioeconomic and social capital advantage without actually attacking those advantages. If you were serious about Social Mobility you would have to attack cumulative advantage, negate it by legislation, introduce nepotism laws, but that will never happen and hiding behind the noble lie of ‘Social Mobility’ is dishonest and unproductive.

Social Mobility leads me nicely into ‘Aspirations’. Often, the aspirations of those that seek to further the cause of Social Mobility do so with the best of intentions.  It used to be that disadvantaged children were thought to lack aspirations and Aspirations are often seen in discussions on Education, usually attached to tales of low aspirations by teachers and schools for students from poor backgrounds and how it is these low aspirations that patronise, undermine, and ultimately fail these children. A narrative has arisen that we can ignore socioeconomic disadvantage just as long as people aspire to elevate themselves out of it or above it and we need to both encourage those disadvantaged aspirations to do that and we need to hold aspirations for the disadvantaged to enable them to that for themselves.

The story goes that, if you blame the disadvantages a child faces on their lack of prospects or mobility then you are failing that child. It doesn’t matter that all indicators are that our place in society is decided by cumulative socioeconomic and social capital advantages. It doesn’t matter that “elite” education establishments favour or are populated by those from families that have already benefited from “elite” education establishments. It doesn’t matter that the professions that we should be encouraging disadvantaged children to aspire to favour those from “elite” education establishments. It doesn’t matter that nothing is being done to reform the society we live in so as to negate these advantages. What is important is that we aspire for great things from these children and encourage them to aspire to great things. All disadvantaged children need is a good education, the right encouragement and belief in them and they will be capable of overturning their disadvantage themselves, capable of overturning the generations of disadvantage of their own circumstances and the cumulative advantage of those they will be competing with. It’s all about Aspiration and there is no requirement to create a level playing field first.

That’s not to say that people have not worked hard and overcome their disadvantages but for every one person that worked hard and overcame their disadvantages hundreds of thousands, millions worked hard and did not; luck separates those that do from those many more that don’t, not Aspiration.

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