Page last updated at 23:24 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 00:24 UK

Closing the opportunity gaps

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

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A report on social mobility says that despite the ambition to close the gap between rich and poor, divisions are growing deeper.

Former minister Alan Milburn, leading an independent panel of experts, has delivered a report to the prime minister calling for fairer access to the high-earning professions.

Rather than these high-status jobs becoming more accessible, Mr Milburn's report says that they are more socially exclusive.

It presents a picture of a polarising society, in which the most affluent, best-connected families are tightening their grip on the most sought-after jobs.

As an example, the report shows that doctors and lawyers who are in their late-30s today are drawn from a more affluent slice of society than their colleagues in their 50s.

Why should this be the case? Why should the gap be widening?

Mr Milburn points to the "hoarding of opportunities" by wealthier families, giving their children advantages in education and connections, such as giving them a head-start in finding internships and work placements.

At the other end of the scale, he says there is a problem of low aspiration, which he describes as the "not for the likes of me syndrome".

The report highlights how this narrowing of opportunity is no longer just about the most disadvantaged, it is now leaving behind parts of middle England.

Privilege

In the past, efforts to improve the chances of the "socially excluded" tended to focus on those in deepest deprivation.

But Mr Milburn's report addresses a much broader swathe of society - which he calls the "forgotten middle class" - arguing that middle-income families also suffer from this concentration of privilege.

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According to figures assembled for the report panel, up to nine in 10 new jobs could be in the professional and managerial sectors.

The number of jobs classified as professional is steadily increasing - so much so that in London just over half of all jobs are in this category, with the wider south-east of England not far behind.

When so many jobs are professional, it means that fair access is becoming a mainstream concern, argues the report.

While the expansion of the professions in the 1950s and 1960s created opportunities for social mobility, the concern is that the expansion of the professions in the 2000s will reinforce social divisions.

Mr Milburn's report identifies the role of universities as central to trying to bridge the gap and improve social mobility.

The government has for many years promoted the cause of widening participation - encouraging more young people from a wider range of social backgrounds to go to university.

Social engineering

University has been seen as the engine of social mobility, giving youngsters the chance to enter high-skilled, higher-earning professions.

But the report highlights the significance of admissions when higher education becomes such an important gateway to the professions.

It calls for universities to take into account the social backgrounds of applicants.

But this has proved difficult territory in the past - with claims of "social engineering" and "positive discrimination".

There have also been complaints from universities that they are meant to be pursuing academic excellence, rather than redressing social inequalities.

Universities have been under pressure to attract more disadvantaged pupils for years, but this report questions the effectiveness of the efforts and expense.

Mr Milburn, introducing his report, said the cost per extra student recruited had been £10,000.

Although any plans to change the way students are admitted to higher education will depend upon the approval of the universities, which are autonomous institutions.

Gender gap

Previous attempts at introducing a "fairer" admissions system, such as plans for applications to be made after A-level results, have been pushed into the long grass.

The drive to get more students into university has also had unintended knock-on consequences, such as reducing opportunities for non-graduates.

Those people who once would have "worked their way up" through a workplace, now face a limit from the expectation of degrees and postgraduate qualifications.

Mr Milburn identified this "qualifications inflation" as one of the factors that had increased the social exclusivity of professions.

The report also highlights the importance of a whole range of informal advantages and disadvantages.

Internships and work placements can provide much richer pickings for young people from well-educated, well-connected families.

A family's ability to support young people financially during unpaid internships can also be a significant factor in whether or not they can get a foot on the ladder in competitive occupations.

There are also local factors, such as the concentration of internships in London, creating another hurdle for youngsters elsewhere in the country.

There is also the question of aspiration. Much of the report looks at the incomes of families, but research also shows a stark gender gap.

While 42% of girls want to pursue a professional career, only 27% of boys do so.

This report will raise wider questions about why mobility seems to have slowed - whether it is a result of the education system, a reflection of the economy or a deeper pattern of social change.



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