What we really need to do about social mobility

Increasing the level of social mobility has become the holy grail of social policy over the past 10 or 15 years. The working definition of social mobility is the extent to which children’s income and occupation are related to those of their parents. It is now fairly widely accepted that there is less social mobility in the UK compared with many advanced countries. Changing this was a priority for the educational policy of the Labour government and the coalition claims that they share this ambition.

The starting point for policy development was the assertion that the links between poverty, low educational attainment and social and economic status as an adult could and should be broken. This continues to be the view of the All Party Group on Social Mobility whose report has just been issued.

As a consequence we’ve seen a barrage of initiatives designed to raise standards in schools attended by more disadvantaged pupils. Some have been positive and supportive programmes ranging from Sure Start through Excellence in Cities and London Challenge to the Pupil Premium. Others have been more punitive – an inspection regime that has impacted more severely on schools with poorer pupils, threats of closure and forced conversion to academy status.

It would be wrong to say that nothing has been achieved. Some tests show a closing of the gap between, for example, pupils on free meals and the rest. But more commonly we see higher test scores across the board so that children from wealthier backgrounds maintain their lead and their access to higher status universities and careers.

The parliamentary report identifies what it calls “seven key truths” about social mobility

  1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between ages 0 and 3, primarily in the home
  2. You can also break the cycle through education…
  3. . …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching
  4. But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
  5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
  6. But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
  7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

Predictably the press coverage degenerated into stories about managing children’s bed time and getting them their “five a day”. The Tory press even more predictably saw the answer in bringing back the grammar schools, in the face of all the evidence which shows that grammar schools simply entrench the advantage of the already privileged.

The committee is not wrong in identifying seven important issues. But as with every other initiative in the last 20 years they are not getting to the real reason why the things they want aren’t happening. What they have not done is to reflect on the lesson of this simple graph:

The message is very clear – the greater the inequality, the less social mobility you find. This is a message the OECD has been preaching for years but it’s one that we have consistently ignored. Since about 1980, our society has become steadily more unequal as the rich have taken an ever-increasing share of national wealth.

So here are seven alternative truths about social mobility that might start to make a real difference:

  1. Reverse the cuts in tax credits and other welfare payments so as to at least mitigate the coming explosion in child poverty.
  2. All employers to adopt the “living wage” as a minimum.
  3. Cut the differential between average and top pay in all organisations.
  4. Make children secure in their homes by giving tenants more security and imposing rent controls.
  5. Don’t cut free school meals and make sure food quality is maintained.
  6. Understand that getting people into work is about creating jobs not punishing the unemployed.
  7. Restore the full range of services in Sure Start Children’s Centres.

 If we did some- even better all – of these things, our schools would have a chance to really close the attainment gap. But while we are set on a path that will increase inequalities in our society, asking schools to carry the can is never going to be the answer.


2 Comments on “What we really need to do about social mobility”

  1. teachingbattleground says:

    I’m quite in favour of more income equality, but this has to be one of the worst uses of a graph I have ever seen. 8 data points, 2 of which appear to be outliers? It demonstrates absolutely nothing.

  2. Paul says:

    i have a modest proposal. Institute a lottery that all citizens must enter that has not only massive cash prizes but also penalties such as chronic ill-health, arbitrary imprisonment, random assassination. In this way, the necessary compensating downward movement of the upper classes can be provided. The full specification was provided by Jorge Luis Borges in The Lottery of Babylon.