We need to start taking social mobility seriously – the alternative is too grim to face

Despite the government's many promises, not much has been done to tackle the social inequality spreading in Britain. Justin Madders MP writes.

Children at school development centre

There are talented children in every single community in this country. 

However, it remains the case that rather than their ability and effort, the life chances of young people are most likely to be decided by where they are born and who they are born to.

An education system which allows every child to fulfil their potential is the best way to ensure that we have equality of opportunity. But new analysis by Labour this week revealed that children in the poorest areas are nine times more likely to be in struggling schools than those in the richest areas.

Despite the best efforts of schools, our education system reflects social inequality rather than tackling it.

We were told that dealing with this “burning injustice” was to be at the core of Theresa May’s mission as Prime Minister, but two years on and things have gone backwards on the  watch of her government.

In a poll from last year by the Sutton Trust, just 40% of those surveyed said that they believe that people in the UK have “equal opportunities to get ahead” – down 13% on a decade ago. When they were asked about what factors help people to get ahead in life, the value of coming from a wealthy family declined from 21% in 1987 to 14% in 2009, but is now at 26%.

Faced with this deteriorating situation, the chair of the government’s own watchdog, the Social Mobility Commission, took the unprecedented step of resigning last December. This was not a decision taken hastily, but the outcome of months of frustration at the failure of the government to engage with this issue.

The number of commissioners reduced from 10 in 2015 to just 4 in December following an appointment processes which was described by the chair as “farcical,” after applicants did not even receive a response from the government for over a year.

The outgoing chair, Alan Milburn, wrote in his resignation letter:

“I have little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain.”

Sadly, rather than taking urgent action to rectify the situation following this unprecedented rebuke, a new chair was not appointed for a further six months. At the same time, the government was rebuked by the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee for failing to give the Commission the teeth that it needs to tackle society’s burning injustices.

The neglect of the Social Mobility Commission is a symptom of the government’s overall neglect of this crucially important issue.

The APPG on social mobility, which I chair, has been looking at the gap in attainment between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more affluent backgrounds, and why this gap is more pronounced in different parts of the country. What we have heard in our evidence sessions has been startling.

We heard that the cut in per-pupil funding has impacted more severely on disadvantaged students, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies telling us that there is a strong positive relationship between resources and pupil outcomes.  We also heard that the significantly higher levels of funding in London have been a key contributor to the improved progress in tackling the attainment gap that we have witnessed in the capital.

The Children’s Commissioner recently reported that in London children on free school meals are 40% more likely to achieve a good maths and English GSCE than children in the north.

This is a shocking disparity and it shows that we are failing the 3.6 million children growing up in the north. However, it also represents an opportunity that needs to be grasped urgently – we need to ensure that every child can benefit in the way that children in London have been able to.

We have also heard the benefits to be gained from schools working collaboratively together on a local basis to drive up standards; something that seems to be contrary to the competitive approach schools are currently encouraged to take.

There is something to be done in terms of the school workforce as well; we heard that the most advantaged schools tended to have more qualified teachers, with more experience and with more subject specific qualifications than teachers in schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Reversing those trends must be part of a wider interconnected
strategy across all government departments to improve social mobility.

Only with across-government approach will we begin to see any improvements in social mobility, but they should because it affects us all.

Research by Oxera and the Sutton Trust found that increasing the UK’s social mobility to the average level across Western Europe would increase annual GDP by 2%. This equates to £590 per person, or £39 billion to the economy as a whole. So rather than considering whether we can afford to deliver a comprehensive, properly funded strategy, we should really be asking whether we can afford not to.

If the Prime Minister’s words are ever to be put into practice, the government needs to stop treating social mobility as a niche issue, brought out whenever a speech needs padding and instead needs to make social mobility a central mission.

Too often it feels like it’s one of those areas where a few soundbites help create a few headlines to distract from whatever the government crisis of the day is, but in reality tackling this issue will take years and won’t lead to easy headlines.

It needs a level of political foresight and commitment that is sadly lacking at the moment.

Justin Madders is the Labour MP forEllesmere Port and Neston and the chair of the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.

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