Lee Elliot Major
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So do you think life is fair? Well, in my lifetime, I've clung on to the hope that we enable all people irrespective of their backgrounds to get on in life, and that education would be the great social leveler. Your university and school grades matter more than ever before, and an "A" is always better than a "B" or a "C," right? I used to think about these issues when cleaning the streets of London as a teenager. My mom worked at the local council. She got me a job; she said she could open doors. I hadn't realized it was doors to a dustbin lorry, (Laughter) but I was proud to be a dustman for a summer. And I earned extra money street cleaning, and to this day, I can't resist tying up bin bags in a certain way. And I pick up litter when I walk down the street. I couldn't resist telling this story when I wrote a newspaper article a couple of years ago. It was all about how my life had been transformed by education. My mom and dad split up when I was 15. I ended up sleeping on my own, not going to lessons at school. My prospects were pretty bleak at that point. To be honest, the biggest reaction I got in the articles was the 1980s haircut. (Laughter) The bleached blonde hair, the earrings, the eyeliner. (Laughter) And I'm damned now because whatever my children wear, I wore something worse in the 1980s. (Laughter) But despite my shocking looks, my life did turn around. And this was mainly due to family and friends. My best friend encouraged me to go back to college, his mum and dad took me in, an uncle paid for me to go through university. You know, when you look at individual success, usually it's a product of collective endeavor. We should never forget that. So I went back to school, and I eventually studied for a PhD in theoretical physics, something I don't mention at parties much because it stops conversation dead. I became a reporter on a national newspaper. I was Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust charity, one of the leading education foundations in the country, and a published author. And I'm now the very first professor of social mobility. My mum would have been very proud if she'd still been around. So I've used this story to try and inspire other young people, to show them that backgrounds shouldn't determine what happens to you in life. But the harsh truth is that someone like me from my background stands less of a chance of climbing the social ladder now than in my day. We observe an escalating arms race of education, one in which the rich commandeer increasingly powerful weaponry to get their children ahead, and the poor are ill-equipped to fight. Take private tutoring, for example. There has been a boom in tutoring outside the classroom over the last 20 years in England and Wales. In 2005, 18 percent of teenagers said they have been tutored outside a normal school day. In 2017, that had risen to one in three teenagers. And who are the customers in this billion-pound marketplace? Well, it's the children of the privileged classes. Dig beneath the veneer of an orderly and respectful British society, and you will find a very different story. Many parents will admit to cheating in school admissions, renting a property near the school so their children get ahead. The Times newspaper had an investigation that showed that thousands of parents are now claiming medical conditions for their children so they can get to the front of the queue. And just like false addresses, these conditions mysteriously disappear the following term. This goes to a whole different level when it comes to getting into the best universities. You may have seen last month the news of the biggest scandal in U.S. college admissions history. Hollywood actors were among the rich parents who had paid a shady organization to bribe admissions tutors, to pay other people to take their children's tests, to even fabricate athletic prowess. Now, I'm not suggesting that this blatant cheating is widespread in higher education. But how different is it to all the advantages the middle classes have? The extra tutoring, the insider information, the contacts. All these things are crucial to gaining that competitive edge. And a US attorney summed it up very well. For every winner, there has to be a loser. And in the toxic mix of education and money, [Winners and losers] a zero-sum game of social mobility, there has to be a loser for every winner. Far from acting as a great social leveler, the education system has become the vehicle through which the elites retain their position in society. And you can see this in expansion of universities in Britain. Over the last 40 years, the graduation rate of those from the poorest fifth of homes has gone up. But the graduation rate of those from the richest homes has gone up even more. In other words, the graduation gap has increased. The expansion of universities has been mainly a middle-class affair. So do you still think an "A" is better than a "B" or a "C"? But what we know is that A Levels are increasingly a signal of how much support you get as much as your academic potential or natural ability. How else can we explain that state school students with the same A Level grades as theeir privately educated peers get better degrees on average at university? Now, I'm not blaming the parents here. I'm a parent. I've paid for tutoring for my children. We all want the best for our sons and daughters. But I believe we've reached a dangerous tipping point in society. Inequality has widened in my lifetime, and the rich have pulled away, and the arms race has become an even more one-sided affair. It's little surprise that social mobility has fallen. And what we find is that there is an inextricable link between inequality, the gaps between rich and poor, and social mobility, the likelihood of climbing the social ladder. You can see this in the international comparisons. Here on this graph of several countries, the higher up on this graph, the less mobile the country is. The more to the right, the more unequal that country is. Britain and the United States are in the worst position of all: high inequality and low social mobility. What's really interesting about these international comparisons is countries like Britain and the U.S., who have embraced the very individualistic notion of the American Dream, have low social mobility, and those countries, like the Scandinavian nations, who have prioritized collective responsibility over individual gain, have higher social mobility rates. In the Scandinavian countries, they don't talk about the American Dream, they talk about the Law of Jante: putting society first before the individual. In this country, we're haunted by the words of Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. So why should all this matter? Well, for one, it highlights an appalling waste of talent: millions of lives in this country whose potential goes unfulfilled. And quite frankly, more of us are getting fed up with it. We may be a class-ridden society, but in Britain, the biggest gripe is not playing by the rules. We're sick of the same people at the top. Every Prime Minister since the war who studied at an English university went to one institution: Oxford. And one school, Eton College, has produced 19 Prime Ministers. Around 50 to 60 percent of leading people across a range of professions, from medicine to law, politics, journalism, attended private schools. But only 7 percent of children attend those schools. We've created a disconnected and dysfunctional elite. I know this firsthand; I've been in to number 10 Downing Street, and I'm pretty sure I was the only man in the room who had slept on a train station floor, who had been threatened with a knife, certainly who'd worn eyeliner - (Laughter) maybe not. There's a distinct lack of diversity at the top. And that matters because people from different backgrounds bring different perspectives, different views. They improve decision-making. They understand the distinctively different communities they're intended to serve. Low social mobility has created a populist and divisive politics. Ring any bells? And a fractured society. And I believe that we're heading to a car crash, that there will be social unrest. So what should we do? Well, I do think we need an education system that nurtures all talents, not just academic, but entrepreneurial, vocational, creative. University is not for everyone. But if you're serious about social mobility, you would also tackle the extremes of inequality. You'd pay nurses and teachers more, people that do public good. We also need to make university admissions fairer. I would do far more to give lower grade offers to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities already do this, but they could do much more. A "B," "C," or "D" is an amazing accomplishment if you've been in care, if you've been living rough. If you've just been poor. I would establish a percent scheme for state schools. This has been done in the United States. If you come in the top 10 percent of the class, you get automatically enrolled into your local university. Your circumstances have a profound impact on your achievement. My favorite, though, is to choose students randomly that have all met a particular academic level. To be frank, getting into those top universities with those high grades is already pretty much a lottery. And lotteries are used in education a lot. At a stroke, we would sweep away all the middle-class advantages: the gaming, the cheating, the queue jumping. The roll of a dice would equalize life's lottery. And one final thing: don't let anyone tell you that the world is fair, that we live in a meritocracy, that social mobility is somehow dumbing down. We play on a grotesquely uneven playing field. It looks something like this. (Laughter) And most of us, not just those from poor backgrounds, face an uphill climb just to compete. Remember an "A" is not always better than a "B" or a "C." Thank you. (Applause)