Why social mobility is going backwards

3 May 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 May 2019

Pic: Unsplash

Improving social mobility is a central policy objective of all mainstream political parties. 


When Theresa May became PM she declared it her key domestic priority. She said she wanted “a country where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like”.

Within months Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission stepped down. In his resignation letter he told May: “I do not doubt your personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action.”

This week the Social Mobility Commission’s annual state of the nation report was published. It reported that social mobility had stagnated for the past four years. Attempts to make the UK fairer, more open and more mobile have stalled.

It is important to note that improving social mobility has been a cornerstone of public policy since 1997. In that year Tony Blair said that his government had a new cause and a new ambition: to rebuild Britain as “one nation in which each citizen is valued and has a stake; in which no one is excluded from opportunity and the chance to develop their potential”.

Ten years later his successor Gordon Brown said: “I want the best of chances for everyone. That is my mission - if we can fulfil the potential and realise the talents of all our people, then I am absolutely sure that Britain can be the great global success story of this century”.

And when he was elected Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron said, "we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means … giving everyone in our country a chance so that no matter where you’re from you have the opportunity to make the most of your life.”

Improving social mobility is recognised as of supreme importance by all political parties. The lack of it affects individuals, entire communities and regions and creates a sense of us and them, creating conditions which foster resentment and unrest. 

It used to be an axiom of public policy that every generation should be better off than the last. This is no longer the case.

So what has gone wrong? And, more important still, what needs to be done? Two years ago the Commission published a report marking the 20th anniversary of Blair’s speech Time for Change was unique because it was the first attempt to assess the impact of social mobility policy initiatives and make clear, evidence-based recommendations about what needs to be done. 

It examines what has been done and needs to be done during the various life stages - from the early years, through schools, into training or further/higher education for young people and then into the world of work. It then rates progress on a “traffic light” system. None are rated green. Early Years and Schools have amber ratings with the other two areas being rated red.

The report excludes Northern Ireland which would have scored worse both for Early Years (we do not have the free 30 hours a week child care that English parents enjoy) and education (with our much-publicised financial crisis and the numbers leaving school with no qualifications)

The report is evidence of how often governments fail when it comes to setting and achieving long-term objectives, a lack of patience over the length of time it takes for initiatives to bear fruit, and a lack of clarity over what programmes are supposed to achieve.

An example is in Early Years where the report states: “Early years services have been caught in a no-man’s land between providing extended childcare to enable more parents to work and providing early education to aid children’s development.”

In schools exam results have been prioritised over character development, careers advice and employment outcomes and apprenticeships have become the preserve of adults rather than the young people who need them most.

Over and above this spending priorities have not been lined up to support social mobility. The best example of this is how investment in older people (including wealthy pensioners) has been protected whilst spending on younger people and the working poor has been cut.

Therefore May is not the only Prime Minister who has failed to deliver on sincerely held convictions causing social mobility to stutter.

So what can and should be done?

One of the proposed solutions involves setting stretching, long-term targets. In Early Years the Commission argues that we should aim to  ensure that within a decade every child, regardless of background, is school ready by the age of five and that the attainment gap between poorer five-year-olds and their peers has been halved.

It also – compellingly – argues that the role of parenting in Early Childhood development has not been emphasised nearly enough and wants to see funding restored and expanded for parenting programmes.

The proposed programme for schooling is even more ambitious. It wants the target to be that, within a decade, the attainment gap between poorer children and their better off classmates should be closed at GCSE level. 

To help to achieve that it wants a change in the schools inspection regime around how effectively schools are closing the attainment gap and to prioritise funding for this. A corollary of this would be to abandon all attempts to increase the number of grammar schools and concentrate resources on failing schools instead. This is not currently achievable in Northern Ireland when so many politicians seem to believe that selective education is a panacea in the face of all available evidence.

For young people the Commission argues that apprenticeships should be re-focused on young people; greater investment in further education colleges and that universities should be encouraged to up their game in providing advice, support and sourcing work placements to help graduates into the workplace.

The UK is now a low wage economy and the Commission wants that to be addressed, with an ambition that it should have the lowest level of low pay amongst the 36 countries in the OECD by 2030. It wants to see that kick-started by government declaring itself a Living Wage employer and expecting all those with public sector contracts to be so as well.

 One of the most fascinating – and depressing aspects of this work is how clearly it shows that government is rarely as effective as most of us would like to think.

Improving social mobility is a major priority of all political parties. The three quotations from Blair, Brown and May are interchangeable. The danger of not making progress is equally well understood and evidence is growing of the cancerous effect of inaction.

Yet despite unanimous support for the principle, effective policy-making has been lacking. This seems all the more remarkable given that progress towards social mobility is easily measured and there is widespread agreement in policy-circles about what needs to be done. Its not that they have done nothing, more that it has either not been enough; has not been thought through; or is being undermined by other, unrelated policies.

It cannot be beyond  the competence of government, and civil servants to sort this out. Lack of social mobility poses an even bigger threat to society, the economy and social cohesion than Brexit. In fact many argue that it was a sense of alienation from and abandonment by political elites that prompted Brexit in the first place.

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