In more stable times, assessing the implications of policy on social mobility is a difficult challenge. In an unpredictable period, it becomes much more complex. Every area of policy has one impact or another, and there is a danger of losing focus. To address this issue, the Social Mobility Commission aims to focus on the “gross” elements where the evidence of impact is greatest. These are the policy areas that we hope governments, now and in the future, will recognize as their priorities to ensure that this country nurtures and distributes talent in the best way possible. They are outlined in our work plan and will soon be set out in more detail in our strategic plan, which will provide a broader narrative of our approach and why we believe it is relevant for the current period.
Our main areas of interest will be education, pathways to employment, economy and enterprise. Assessing the Autumn Declaration against these three priorities presents a mixed picture. We share the ambition to grow the economy. Much of the debate on social mobility centers on relative mobility, which is the comparison between different groups, in terms of socio-economic background and access to higher-level employment and income. This is an important part of the story, but too little attention has been paid to absolute mobility – that is, when people progress, whether in terms of income or professional status, by relation to their parents. This is probably the biggest challenge right now. Last week, the Institute of Fiscal Studies produced a thought-provoking report on intergenerational mobility and the extent to which our younger generation, regardless of social background, faces reduced opportunities compared to older people. Far too many people have seen their real income improve very little over the past decade. And there is a strong geographic aspect, which means that certain parts of the country experience a disproportionate share of the problem.
The only solution to this is to grow the economy and to do so in a way that spreads innovation and improves productivity across the country. We recognize that there is a strong commitment to this in the autumn declaration, and a recognition that this requires fiscal and monetary stability, innovation and strong public services. In terms of specifics, it’s too early to pass judgment on how it might work. However, there are three aspects that we would like to draw attention to at this point. First, we must salute the commitment to the most vulnerable. This does not in itself improve social mobility, as it depends on a range of other factors as well as income – but it does provide some degree of protection against diminished opportunities for families and their children who are most exposed to financial insecurity. We also welcome the additional funding for schools, for the same reason. This won’t make up for all of their outstanding challenges, but will likely ease some of the more difficult pressures caused by rising costs. However, there are two areas of major concern: the absence of any reference to the impact of financial pressures on the early years or on continuing education.
It is highly unlikely that any government can achieve its ambitions of a strong economy without addressing skills. From a social mobility perspective, it is about how we create and open up opportunities for highly skilled and well-paid jobs, but it is also about finding new solutions to our biggest national problem: the number of young people and adults with low levels of formal qualifications. Much of this is about closing gaps in basic skills, including literacy and numeracy – as this is a major barrier to the progress of individuals and the ability of the economy to innovate and to improve productivity.
It is encouraging that the autumn declaration refers to skills and recognizes the importance of the current proposals to improve the skills system. However, it is silent on the risks posed by the current economic crisis to the organizations responsible for delivering these results. We know that early childhood development is key to developing the cognitive and non-cognitive skills that enable children to do well, and we support post-16 education and training reforms that aim to strengthen technical pathways and professional – because they seek to recognize and reward the wider range of talents available to individuals and needed by the labor market.
More funding is not always the answer to all problems, and is never the complete answer to all problems. How the early years are delivered and how skills are taught are two extremely important areas of focus for us. However, nothing can be achieved without stable institutions – and there is evidence, both in early childhood and in continuing education, that current levels of funding are insufficient to recruit and retain high quality staff, or to ensure the institutional stability needed to maintain current levels of training. service while things improve. We are concerned about the implications of this, both for those affected (nearly 2 million people are enrolled in higher education institutions) and the potential drag this may well have on longer-term ambition term to provide a stronger economy.
Katharine Birbalsingh OBE, President of the Social Mobility Commission
Alun Francis OBE, vice-president of the social mobility commission