Reading an article in my Sunday Times recently I was not in the least surprised that well-bred dimwits hoard the best jobs.
It is the ‘old school tie’ that call the shots no matter what the qualifications are and that does include what we term ‘dimwits’ who break the mould. The comedian Harry Enfield, who is certainly very bright, played the 1990s TV character Tim Nice-but-Dim as an amiable buffoon, unable to understand that he was being ripped off even as he murmured: ‘What a bloody nice bloke!’
In reality, however, Tim and his fellow well-bred, but not so bright public-school boys, have had the last laugh.
Recently, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SNCPC) unveiled research showing that Tim and his ilk were blocking social mobility by hanging on to well-paid jobs that they did not merit.
It declared: ‘In a world where “room at the top” is increasing only slowly as it is simply not possible to increase any form of upward mobility without a commensurate rise in downward mobility.’
The study found that less bright children from an affluent background were thirty-five per cent more likely to become high earners by the age of forty-two than bright children from poor backgrounds.
Nick Newman, co-creator of the television character and a cartoonist for the Sunday Times, confirmed that Tim was inspired by fellow pupils at Ardingly College, Sussex, ‘who always seemed to land on their feet. They all ended up going to the City to do jobs they didn’t understand, yet ended up making oodles of money’. Enfield played him again in a comeback tour with Tim popping up at Number 10 where he had been working for his brother, Dave Nice-but-Dumb, at Downing Street for the past five years.
How effective are the strategies of the professional middle classes determined to give their offspring the best start in life? The numbers show private school and a degree are reliable pathways to career success. A privately-educated boy with a low score in cognitive tests at age five is eighteen per cent more likely to be in the top fifth of earners at the age of forty-two than a boy who got a high score but went to a comprehensive.
For girls, the effect is stronger with a twenty-nine per cent better chance for the low attainers who go to private school. If a better-off boy who scores poorly at age five gains a degree, he is one hundred and eleven per cent more likely to earn a high wage than his counterpart who got a high score at five, but left school with no qualifications. The gap for girls is one hundred and fifty-six per cent.
It also helps to have a parent with a degree. For higher attainers it boosts boys’ earning prospects by twelve per cent and girls by seventeen per cent, while for low attainers it boosts boy’s prospects by sixty-nine per cent and girls by one hundred per cent. There is even a correlation between the social background of a child’s grandfather and their career prospects.
Abigail McKnight, the author of the study and a senior research fellow at the LSE, examined the cognitive test scores of a cohort of seventeen thousand born in 1970 and assessed how they had performed in their careers by the age of forty-two. Those in the top two fifths were graded high attainers while those in the bottom two were low attainers. The figures show children from richer families perform a lot better from the age of five than those from lower socio-economic groups.
McKnight said that, by the age of five, children from more privileged backgrounds had already benefited from better nurturing which boosted their scores.
Georgina Jones, twenty-six, who grew up on a council estate in Peckham, found her career prospects were transformed when she was given an internship at sixteen by the Social Mobility Foundation. She now works as an associate at Taylor Wessing, a law firm, and although she believes she would have made it this far because of her personal drive, it is time to increase the support offered to others to convert early promise into later success.
Alan Milburn, the SMCPC chairman and a former Labour Cabinet minister, wants the disadvantaged to get a helping hand with the support, advice and development opportunities that better-off middle-class families take for granted. But he also wants to kick away some of the props the better off use for what the study calls ‘opportunity hoarding’. He urged employers to ensure the internships were not reserved for those with the right social contacts. He added, ‘It’s a social scandal that all too often demography is destiny in Britain.’
Well, it goes to prove time and again that we are the product of our environment. If luck is on our side and we are born in a privileged background, then things are much easier and our destiny is more or less shaped to give us ample opportunities to succeed – whereas others are hampered by the lack of social mobility to fire them beyond their disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Britain, despite all the reforms of the past three decades, we are still more class conscious than is good for us and for the progression towards a fairer society where merit alone reigns supreme.