The Labour Government is making a move to shift its focus onto fighting class discrimination in the UK.

What exactly does this mean? At the core of this new initiative, outlined in a new white paper, sits a noble aim, which is for “every individual to realise their potential, no matter what their background”. And that is a very good ideal to aspire to, don’t get me wrong. Equal opportunities matter at all ages, but especially for younger people still in education whose personalities and perceptions are still being shaped. People who are worse-off don’t always achieve (from the education or career point of view) as much as people from more affluent backgrounds, with notable exceptions of course, so the society as a whole is missing out if talent goes unnoticed or undeveloped.  

But I also think, given the current government’s track record, this is a new great but somewhat utopian dream – and a ruse for spending more public money whilst inflating the public sector job roster and creating various notable side effects which should be openly discussed first. I also believe the government itself created the situation where many people, typically in what they call the less affluent classes, are life-time underachievers. Let me clarify why I think that.

Broad reach: The social mobility white paper called “New Opportunities”, which covers this proposal, outlines four areas where the state would intervene in a bid to maximise people’s chances:

  • parents and children in the early years;
  • the school years to help disadvantaged kids get through education;
  • the transition from education through further / higher education into work;
  • and later during people’s working life.

In other words, throughout the person’s whole life, the state wants to play some sort of role guiding them through the challenges. I wonder how many public sector jobs this is going to create and how much this will cost?

More importantly, does this not smack of the nanny state again – telling – no, teaching parents how to raise their kids, what message to give them during childhood? Does a comforting image of non-intrusive advisory services for underprivileged adults come to mind? Personally, I am not sure I can see how this might work without being patronising to the people it is intending to help, and not upset the people whom it will refuse to help (sorry, you are too rich to receive this advice), but let’s leave this for now.

Universities: The government seems, yet again, intent on pushing more people through universities. Whilst there is nothing wrong with showing there is an opportunity for anyone who wishes to take it, such a drive to get more youngsters into higher education invariably becomes an exercise in hitting prescribed administrative targets if done on a mass scale. And are we really benefitting from this as a society? So many ex-polis converted to university status and are now offering mickey-mouse degrees in anything at all – partly because we are urging kids to go into higher education where they don’t actually want to study complicated things like Maths and Physics. So in comes BA in Media studies, Film studies, etc. This is whilst industries are crying out for apprentices who just aren’t there anymore – it’s not glam enough.  

Discrimination created: Invariably, through obsessively fighting discrimination on all fronts, this country ends up discriminating against its majorities. Cue the white middle class male, who is feeling that he is an endangered species these days. And whilst some will say “serves him right” I am sure the hard-working white male begs to differ. How long until the white middle class female will also feel in the minority? The middle class is taxed progressively higher to sponsor various Labour spending schemes and this one will be added to the list.

Consider the employer: A UK employer is already facing discrimination if they happen not to employ minorities – I have first hand experience, as a small business, of councils refusing to consider your tender for a proposal if your employees’ racial and ethnic breakdown is not interesting enough. Would an employer be forced to take on a “chav” who does not have the right attitude and skills as part of a box-ticking exercise? I can envisage this happening and it scares me.

Costs: The boring bit. This is going to be an expensive initiative which will, for instance, require funds to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay on in higher education, and of course the general costs of running schemes of such breadth and coverage. There is nothing wrong with grants given to people who show promise and talents but somehow I feel this might be more of a blanket coverage. I am sure there will be great causes that will be helped and maybe we’ll produce an extra few geniuses by investing in them early. But I think we are going about it the wrong way if we really want to get people to aspire to succeed.

What’s the answer? It’s not easy being all things to all people, and solve all the social inequalities and unfairnesses in one foul swoop. This government is trying to do just that in so many ways and it is an impossible task. If this new initiative is ever to see the light of day, it could become a monster of a system open to abuse and financial mismanagement that would also be perceived to be very unfair by those not benefitting from it.

I think the government is overlooking a crucial thing that would surely reap more economic and social rewards in the long run.

Welfare state: Presently, by maintaining a welfare system that positively encourages people to underachieve due to the happy life they can have on state benefits, the government is effectively promoting the culture of scrounging off the state. The merits of hard work have been forgotten by many over the past two generations. Surely this is the real reason kids are underachieving, especially in the less-well-off families that have a history of living on benefits?

 By changing the incentive system and promoting the culture and the merits of working hard – regardless whether you have a degree or not, or whether you tend to wear a shell suit and gold hoop earrings at weekends  – this sad state of affairs will eventually be turned around. Not immediately, not for another generation, but it will be. And then cream will start rising to the top more readily.

However if we don’t change the welfare incentive system in this country, no amount of well-intentioned schemes to fight underachievement and class discrimination will yield the desired long-term benefit.

More details on the current proposals can be found here.


Copyright 2009 by CuriouslyInspired