Do wrongs make a riot?

29 November 2011

Were the August riots 'simply criminality' or a symptom of a wider malaise? Looking at the key sectors of education, employment and family wellbeing, expert commentators explore whether society actually is 'broken' – and how it can be fixed.

Lee Elliot MajorThe widening gap

Dr Lee Elliot Major, Director - Research and Policy, The Sutton Trust

Had Michael Young's prophecy come to pass? This was the immediate question that came to mind as I sat in horror in my home in North London as the riots appeared to be getting closer and closer to our local area.

In his classic 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy Young predicted the creation of a new powerful 'meritocratic elite' that would eventually lead to society's downfall as an underclass became increasingly disenfranchised. This elite would justify its stranglehold of power by closely controlling what 'merit' constituted. And with no stake in society left, the underclass would take to the streets. Chillingly, Young’s vision seemed to be realised during those nights when the streets in London, Birmingham and Manchester became battlegrounds.

One would not want to overstate the case here: the summer riots were triggered by a multitude of factors – tensions with the police after a controversial shooting, opportunistic lawlessness, and boredom among them. But the fact that so many of our young had so little to risk to so brazenly break the law, suggests that perhaps they could be the generation, consciously or not, who fulfil Young's prophecy.

But then as suddenly as the riots had erupted, normal life seemed to resume – save for the odd boarded-up shopfront. Only in Britain, one felt, could so much happen, and yet so little change. And in the weeks after the disturbances, the annual school results were published. The usual news stories emerged. Pupils from independent schools were three times more likely to score top A-levels than students in state comprehensives. Independently-educated children were set to gain even more places at Britain's most prestigious universities.

The huge weight of academic evidence suggests that social mobility is lower than it could or should be in the country. Family background, rather than individual talent, matters more in Britain (and the United States) in predicting future earnings than most other developed countries for which we have data.

The privileged classes continue to dominate our professional elites. Two thirds of the current Cabinet were privately educated – despite private schools making up only seven per cent of schools. Over half of leading news journalists, and eight in ten of high court judges went to private school. One study by Bristol University found that the latest generations of children entering professions such as law or journalism were more likely to come from more prosperous homes, but less likely to be one of the cleverest children in class at age 11 than previous cohorts. Our elites are becoming posher, but less clever.

Meanwhile, every year half of children leaving school at age 16 have failed to reach basic levels in English and maths – many of whom we know had academic potential to do so. At the same time opportunities for more vocational or creative development are still seen and treated as an inferior option by most, good only 'for someone else's children'.

As Young rightly predicted, academic evidence also suggests that widening income inequality leads to a cycle of ever-increasing opportunity gaps between rich and poor. As the privileged accrue more wealth, they are able to devote ever more resources to maximise the educational achievements of their children – paying by fees or postcode or private tuition for them to attend the best schools. At the same time educational achievements – most notably prestigious university degrees – have increasingly become the golden tickets to exclusive entry into the professional elites, and higher earning jobs.

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