Inching towards consensus on social mobility

A cross-party report describes Britain's failure to offer children reliable routes out of poverty bu

An intriguing parliamentary report was published this week. No, not that one.  Another one. Given the competition from the Media Select Committee’s agenda-hogging inquiry into malfeasant News International executives, the interim report of the All-Party Working Group on Social Mobility was unlikely to steal the headlines. It has nonetheless been reported in a few places and is worth a look.

The group was established last year to investigate why Britain seems so bad at providing reliable avenues for children from poorer backgrounds to get on in life. And the UK record on that front really is appalling, among the worst in the OECD group of industrialised countries. By some measures, British children’s future prospects are more firmly tethered by their parents’ income than their peers in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Canada ... More dispiriting still, the situation appears to be getting worse. Today’s 40-somethings have progressed, as a cohort, less than the generation that preceded them. The life chances of children born today look substantially pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth. There are exceptions, of course, and tales of heroic - or mundane - emancipation from difficult circumstances. The point that the report makes, largely by aggregating data from a range of wider surveys, is that the pattern is soul-sapping immobility.

It is just an interim report, with wider conclusions due later in the year. The current document generally limits itself to the task of defining social mobility (not straightforward, since one generation superseding the last is a different business to one child out-performing his or her parents) and hinting at some of the areas where policy can intervene. It is framed as “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”. Inevitably, education is identified as the dominant theme and, specifically, the need to examine how the hold that private education has on top university places is really an expression of those schools’ capacity to churn out higher rates of top A-level grades. Once at university, state educated children with lower grades promptly catch up with or overtake their multiple-A-starred peers. There is also a heavy emphasis on intervention in the early years of children’s development, which ample research has shown to be the most effective way to influence life chances.  

There is always the risk in these reports of surrender to platitude and well-meaning abstraction. Naturally, everyone wants all children to get the best start in life. No-one celebrates entrenched cultural and institutional barriers to advancement. No-one advocates complacency or low aspiration. The group will go on to look at other factors affecting social mobility - “higher education and the role of contextual admissions; careers advice, mentoring, role models; enterprise; geography; disability, gender and ethnicity ...”  Conspicuously absent is any consideration of the impact of the current fiscal settlement on incomes, access to services etc. The distributional effects of austerity policies are hard to ignore in a discussion of future social mobility and practically impossible to debate in a parliamentary context without falling behind party lines. Likewise, the interim report contains only a brief and slightly squeamish reference to inequality:

Though they are clearly not the same thing, there is a recognised correlation between developed countries with high levels of mobility and high levels of income equality. Although it is hard to determine causality, there are a number of plausible reasons why high inequality reduces social mobility.

Indeed there are. But the ensuing conversation about potential remedies leads down a path so fraught with ideological and partisan passions that an all-party group scarcely dares tread there.

Given those limitations, the report and the group’s chairman Conservative MP Damian Hinds deserve credit for establishing some common ground on which an urgent debate should follow. The seven truths are:

1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 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

Each is fleshed out with supporting data and analysis. The full report is here.

 

British society is among the least mobile in the developed world

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era