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23 October 2021

If the Tories are serious about social mobility, they’ll have to level down the aspirations of middle-class parents

The social mobility in the government’s imagination is one in which nobody suffers – but that option no longer exists.

By Philip Collins

A government that was serious about levelling up would have abolished the Social Mobility Commission. It is hard enough to improve the productivity of disparate regions. To set yourself simultaneously a social mobility test is a folly. The foolishness is inadvertently laid bare in a new report in which Alun Francis, the new deputy chair, signals new thinking at the Social Mobility Commission.

Once he gets past some familiar curmudgeon’s platitudes – too many people go to university, schools teach too much about “skills” and too little about “knowledge” – Mr Francis hits two crucial points. The first is that social mobility is not just Jude the Obscure with a happy ending. The poor infant who wins a place at Oxford is the glamour-child of social mobility but most people will move less far in their lives, both geographically and socially. The second, which is where it really gets hard, is that fixing this means altering the very nature of the British economy and the instincts of parents everywhere.

Social mobility is a strange test for a government to set itself. It is a complex calculation that has no public resonance. National rates do not respond at all quickly to a reformed policy regime. And even if a government succeeds, nobody really knows because the results do not come in for a generation. There is zero hope of a government pointing to its achievements in social mobility and asking the electorate for a positive verdict. It’s not an idea a ruthless political tactician would retain.

But the argument goes on and now has a new frame in the government’s stress on levelling up. So it is worth saying again that Britain’s record on social mobility is not especially good. In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Social Mobility Index – which measures the factors that tend to create social mobility – the UK came 21st out of the 82 nations considered. But among the G7 developed economies only the US and Italy ranked lower than Britain. Germany and France were considerably better. The prize goes, as it so often does, to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, where social mobility is made easier by the relative equality of income distribution.

In his report, published by Policy Exchange, Mr Francis rather blithely identifies two major British flaws. He writes that the Social Mobility Commission has mainly focused on “demand”, by which he means that policy has tried to distribute the existing jobs more fairly rather than change the supply of the types of jobs created. Then he argues that too much attention has been paid to the leap to the top of a lucky few, and too little to the mobility of the many. Strangely, he believes that he can have one without losing the other.

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This first stipulation is tantamount to asking for a different kind of economy. This, indeed, has been how social mobility has improved in previous eras. The generation born between 1950 and 1959 was considerably more likely to climb the social scale than the generation born in the decade before 1900. But this was not caused by a greater likelihood of poorer students prevailing over richer students. It was caused by the simple fact that the middle class grew in size. In the earlier period, only 18 per cent of jobs were classified as professional while it was 42 per cent in the second period. There was, to use the title of John Braine’s 1957 novel, more room at the top.

The digital revolution threatens a similar change but in the wrong direction. The UK’s hourglass economy is creating more room at the bottom. Mr Francis is a school principal in Oldham so he will see at first hand the types of jobs that are being created in the north-west. I have myself been involved in this issue, not far away from Oldham, in Bury, where I chaired a forum on life chances. The most important conclusion drawn from that work was, in a town in which employment was high, that the quality of work was too low. Local jobs offered low pay and too little hope of progression. One viable option was to conceive of Bury as part of the extended economic conurbation of Manchester but this runs counter to the desire expressed by the Prime Minister in his conference speech that nobody should have to leave their place of birth in order to thrive. Quite how Mr Johnson intends to improve the quality of work in Oldham and Bury I have no idea and neither does he.

Besides, this is a fond hope. The social mobility of the government, and of Mr Francis, is one in which nobody suffers. Everyone just moves up. When the economy is changing shape, this is indeed possible but in the absence of such change social mobility is a game of snakes and ladders. And we know that the most effective opponents of social mobility are the parents who help their children cling on to positions of advantage. Either by going private or moving into the expensive catchment areas of good schools, middle-class parents do what any parent in the same position would do – they are trying to do the best for their children. Young people from richer families are also able to take greater risks because debt is a less serious burden; their network of contacts is very much more extensive. Parents acting in good faith are agents preventing downward social mobility.

The answers are the same as they ever were. A more equal income distribution and a much better system of non-academic education would both help. But the government has set itself at the same time the task of either changing the nature of the economy or changing the nature of parents. Good luck with that, as they say.

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