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Inching towards consensus on social mobility

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

Top hat salute
British society is among the least mobile in the developed world

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.