The latest social mobility report  Monitoring Social Mobility landed at the Government’s door this month with a dull thud. The latest in a series of reports form the Social Mobility Commission (yes the same organisation whose Board previously resigned during the tenure of the previous PM for lack of progress).  By reviewing progress against the various recommendations made to Government, it reflects a challenging and unsettling view of the state of social mobility in the Country.

Some key statistics:

  • 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty, compared to 2012. This is projected to increase markedly as a result of COVID-19 Only 57% of pupils entitled to free school meals achieve a good level of
    development when starting school, compared with 74% of all other pupils
  • Half of adults from the poorest backgrounds receive no training at all after leaving school. Even in a professional role, they earn 17% less, on average, than more privileged colleagues.
  • At 16, only 24.7% of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and Maths GCSE, compared with 49.9% of all other pupils.
  • Young people are twice as likely to go to university from a social mobility ‘hot spot’ (27%), compared with remote rural cold spots or former industrial areas (14%)
  • The number of 18-34 year olds owning their own homes almost halved between 1991 and 2013.
  • Poorer households spend 25% of their income on transport; nearly double the national average (13%).
  • The gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas of England is around 19 years.

For all of us committed to social mobility and equality, it makes dispiriting (but not entirely surprising) reading with a third of actions recording no appreciable progress  and almost half showing some but insufficient progress. Of course it may be fair to ask are the Commission’s priorities the correct ones or is the Government addressing these issues in a different and more effective way? The evidence suggest not, with more people in poverty and widening gaps across society.  This is not a political point; yes the commission is looking over a period back to 2013 and it does coincide with a period of Conservative governance (however it is clear that the actions of austerity have exacerbated this rise in inequality),  but the routes of inequality can be traced back further and cover governments of all political persuasions.  The links between child and adult poverty are strengthening over time.  Teenagers growing up poor in the 1980s were four times more likely to be poor as adults, whilst poor teenagers in the 1970s were only twice as likely to be poor as adults.

Amongst the areas that they focus on, there is some good news but overall it is not translating into overall improved outcomes. For example in education there is improving metrics re literacy and numeracy at primary level but gaps open again for disadvantaged students at secondary level.  Relative under funding of 16-19 provision has not helped close the emerging gaps.  Indeed the commission raises concerns that the impact of the apprenticeship reforms has been to reduce opportunities for disadvantaged learners.

Across a range of domains, Early Years, Heath, Housing, Employment, Place, Transport the picture is at best mixed and a lack of a clear strategic focus can be attributed to a lack of a coordinated approach across Government to address the underlying issues of poverty and inequality.

Of course the report comes at a crucial time for policy makers with the impact of Covid 19, the Black Lives Matter movement making clear the corrosive impact of inequality and injustice.  This Government was elected with a commitment to levelling up and the hopes of many areas are based on a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity.  With a looming recession and potential loss of jobs and incomes for many, plus the need to re balance the economy there are difficult choices to mitigate this and build back better.  We need longer term vision to build a more just and sustainable economy that works for the majority and addresses our social, economic and environmental requirements.

From a social mobility perspective there is still a huge legacy to address, the Commission make a series of further recommendations to help address this:

  • A common strategy across government to tackle inequality and promote social mobility. This should be coordinated and driven forward by a single unit at the centre of government.
  • Ensuring that socio-economic background is considered in the design and delivery of all public policy,
    mirroring the arrangements currently in place for gender, race and disability.
  • A welfare system that ensures children who can’t fend for themselves are not living in impoverished households where neither food nor housing are affordable.
  • Pursuing an early years strategy to ensure we help the helpers. Child minders and other key workers must be
    on a decent wage and given the respect they need for such crucial work.
  • Creating a better social mix in schools. Children gain from the broad range of backgrounds of their peers, and this diversity particularly helps the academic achievement of less advantaged groups.
  • Ensuring that further education is better resourced and targeted, and that attention is given to those aged 16-19 from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve outcomes.
  •  Improving apprenticeships and adult education so that more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds
    get the training they deserve.
  • Devolving more powers and funding to the regions to ensure they can target more effectively areas of disadvantage and social mobility ‘cold spots’.

For those of us committed to social justice the report is a hard read, but this is no time to leave the field, we have hard choices to make in terms of the way forward. We must ensure that the voices of those who are at most risk of further exclusion are heard and the structural inequalities addressed to really build back better.