In the UK, less than a year from a General Election, the air is thick with political promises. In The Sun on Sunday the interesting and outspoken Conservative MP, Dominic Raab sets out his “Meritocrats Manifesto” for a “culture which, he says, “champions the underdog, shatters glass ceilings”.
The Raab recommendations are interesting. They include first and foremost opening up public schools to more financially underprivileged children and sprinkling some of the “best education” angel dust of private schools on to state ones.
Leaving aside the fundamentally mistaken idea that all public schools are better than state schools – a point made this week to me by Fiona Millar, the education campaigner (and Labour Party stalwart) there is no doubt that it is in the classroom – of school or of university, of being amongst peers, where aspirations and access to what The Sun on Sundays calls “the ladders of opportunity” get built. Or broken.
Leaving aside the actual education bit – the learning, the teaching, the curriculum, something else happens in all communities, including those of what politicians insist on calling ‘Young People’. It is what the social psychologist Robert Cialdini calls ‘Social Proof’ – namely that we mimic the behaviour of those we are exposed to, and see around us.
The columnist and writer Caitlin Moran wrote in her Times column that the state is privatising care homes for children at considerably higher weekly cost than private school fees: “The amounts are huge..£5,500 is six times the amount it costs to send a child to Eton – but with considerably less networking potential”.
Ah yes, the networking. Anyone who does it, from a market trader to a financial trader, from a politician to a businesswoman, from a job hunter just leaving journalism’s shrinking ship to a corporate executive understands the power of networking. But access to networking, to the skills required to navigate through the plethora of possibilities with guidance and help, that is still denied to the majority of those born without a silver networking spoon in their mouths.
Employers routinely complain that the young arrive unprepared for the world of work, without the confidence or social skills to look a person in the eye, to make small talk (let alone big talk). These essential tools can be learned, but above all they should be practiced. Not on a week’s work experience, but routinely, in social settings which the kids who come from Old Boy Network networks tend to take for granted.
When you look at networks, and network behaviour, there is nothing to suggest that the ability to do it comes from having a background of wealth and privilege. Pretty much all social network analysis points to better outcomes for better networked individuals, who have a wide and plural set of connections. The famous 1973 paper “Weak Ties” by the American sociologist Mark Granovetter is still being cited today by those who estimate that 80% of jobs go to people via networks rather than standard recruitment. Listen to anyone on BBC Radio 4″s “Desert Island Discs” who has ‘made it’ and some 80% of them cite a mentor or someone who believed in them, who ignited some passion in them or encouraged one they saw.
The same 80% are likely to have benefitted from enjoying the support and strength of several networks: not just friends and family, but professional groups whose tensile strength allowed them to add more and more connections on their paths to success.
Social Network Analysis shows the strength of networks as similar to the spread of ideas or other ‘viral’ spreads (including disease). It turns out that it is all down to something called “the threshold model”. Recognising the diffusion rate, or the speed at which an idea or a connection moves and along which network or networks is part of the “spreading rate”. So social mobility, and meritocracy is partly the ability to spread your network and thus differentiate those who can move far more widely and freely in society than those who cannot and do not.
What do the majority of children and teenagers see around them by way of Social Proof compared to those educated at, say Eton? What exactly makes up the privilege which goes with the term most associated with the antithesis of meritocracy, The Old Boy Network? It is, I would argue, not so much the money itself, or the sports fields, or the quality of the teaching, although class size, like Class itself, does matter.
The lucky, the elite, (and some are by virtue of family systems or great state schools too) get access to networks. Not just networks of people but of ideas. Of possibilities. Great teachers of course do inspire. But networks happen out of school hours. In social settings and not only on social networks. Networking behaviour builds and accrues. It spreads.
Social Proof of the value of ideas, of argument, of difference develops in networks where ideas are discussed. The spread of festivals of ideas and books remains stubbornly but not exclusively, middle class. I’m not surprised if the culture of conversation and curiosity is neither learned nor practiced as widely as the curriculum itself.
The kids who go on large group holidays on vachts in the summer, or who join their parents for drinks and dinner parties, even with teenage reluctance, soak up something denied to so many others. It is this advantage which is carried forward into the working world of the very Establishment which needs to change and widen: The BBC, Parliament and the Civil Service, the Judiciary. Corporations.
But it does not have to be so. Every single day, right across the country, thousands of receptions, meetings, drinks, launches, briefings are happening organised by parliamentarians, publishers, TV networks, newspapers, charities, and each one of them has room to spare for someone who needs to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears how the world works.
Why does the Meritocrats Manifesto not include access to each of these events? A simple 1+1 policy, which we advocated on the under-funded but still optimistic http://www.talenttowork.com site which began to matchmake organisations like the British Council and Channel 4 with charities finding the kinds of kids who need chaperoning around a few times to get the hang of things.
It is in networks that ideas and connections flourish. It is in networks which those born with silver spoons flourish more than their counterparts who are often left out of the secret. All you have to do, really, is be in the right room, at the right time. But the door to that room remains closed because no-one routinely opens it.
Labour should, by rights be the natural political promoter of meritcoracy, and the idea that we are a networking nation. Labour’s key meritocratic poster child is the bestselling and prizewinning Alan Johnson, who largely built his skills and confidence in the other Old Boy Network: the trade union movement.
I know that I was born with a silver networking spoon in my family and it got me through a distinctly underwhelming academic record. I came to academia far later than I came to simple conversation. Much can be done to widen the ability to network and to have strong groups of ‘weak tie’ networks – but we have to stop worrying that existing networks are either shallow or encourage nepotism.
Who and what you know, and your confidence and ability to connect widely with people is something which is taught by some parents but not all, and by some schools and not all. Most of “The Establishment” are sitting on opportunities to widen access cheaply and efficiently which they are ignoring.
This is the culture which needs to change, this is the ladder of opportunity which needs to be built. It is cheaper than you think. The cost of not doing it, of course, is far higher.
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