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Social Mobility and the Economy: Another debate, plea and a pledge.

Many inside the debate acquired their education prior to Dearing and University fees. Certainly all before the change to inadequate maintenance loans. I trust they have not forgotten this and that they remind others. Remember many cannot afford the bicycle, never mind living in Oxford or Cambridge. The Social Mobility Pledge indicates a willingness to support change.


In the midst of the increasing turmoil in our universities, staff strike action and student disruption, there was one important event that attracted little attention. It addressed a major rift that is widening in our society to the point that it may be impossible to repair. The problems are social and economic division and a related low level of social mobility. A comprehensive review by the Sutton Trust in 2017 noted that “The UK (along with the US) is one of the lowest performing countries for income mobility across the OECD
(see: ‘The State of Social Mobility in the UK’ produced by Boston Consulting Group: https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/social-mobility-2017-summit-research/). This has been recognised for some time and the failure of individuals to improve their income across the generations in the UK, against the backdrop of a low income economy for the majority, has profound economic implications. That the UK has relatively low GDP per capita and low productivity is well established in OECD data. It stubbornly remains the case that people cannot easily improve their circumstances through education in the UK.

What is happening about Social Mobility?

What appears on the surface to be a common aspiration regarding ‘social mobility’ is inadequately matched by a muddled and confused approach by the government to solving it. This was evident on Wednesday morning (28 March 2018). In advance of prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons, Conservative MP for Putney and former Education Secretary Justine Greening rose to start a debate with “I beg to move, that this House has considered social mobility and the economy.” That the question needed to be asked appears to be astounding given efforts, particularly by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, over recent years. This event was notable in that it then went onto illustrate the confusion and lack of genuine purpose within government. After declaring her modest family background and comprehensive school education in Rotherham, Justine Greening went onto cite the link between the economy and social mobility that is well established. Indeed it was debated in July of last year in Parliament when detailed research and Sutton trust recommendations were considered. See:
http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2017-0137/CDP-2017-0137.pdf

And: Time for change: an assessment of government policies on social mobility 1997 to 2017: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-policies-between-1997-and-2017-time-for-change

She also noted her own recommendations from December 2017 (‘Plan to boost social mobility through education’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/improving-social-mobility-through-education ) made before she lost her position as Education secretary in a reshuffle in the New Year to Damian Hinds (more conventional Independent Grammar School educated and Oxford PPE graduate in pre-Dearing and fees era) . What she didn’t mention was the collapse of the Social Mobility Commission last year through resignation of its Board (see earlier post http://studentequality.tefs.info/2017/12/social-mobility-new-lie-dulce-et.html) or that she was the recipient of a free university education and a grant in the days before the Dearing report and the subsequent Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998 that first introduced fees. More uncomfortable might be that she has previously spoken in favour of university fees and grammar schools and was a senior member of a government that, following the Browne Review in 2010, raised fees to £9,000 and then introduced inadequate maintenance loans for the poorest and least able to pay.

Despite this setting, Justine Greening is clearly determined to make the case for improving the lot of the least advantaged through education. She is obviously not going away and such efforts are to be commended. Initial support for her from the DUP on Wednesday was followed by support from the SNP and Labour and qualified support from Conservative colleagues. Whilst supportive Mel Stride (Conservative Treasury Minister, free place at independent school and Oxford degree in pre-Dearing and fees era) felt obliged instead to defend the government’s position on jobs and the economy.

Most speaking were at pains to declare their low income backgrounds where they could and the debate reflected the disparities of social mobility across regions of the UK.

The real purpose of the debate and the social mobility pledge.

Justine Greening had brought the debate to the floor to highlight the launch of a new initiative designed to link employers with aspiring students from lower income backgrounds. Well into the allotted time she stated: “Today, I am asking businesses large and small to commit to a universal social mobility pledge”. This is a charitable initiative set up jointly with Harrison Centre for Social Mobility (http://www.harrisoncentre.org/) and the Social Mobility Business Partnership (https://smbp.org.uk/). Working with David Harrison (highly successful businessman, MD of True Potential and recent European Business of the year, not University educated) the Pledge (https://www.socialmobilitypledge.org/) aims to encourage the social mobility pledge 'accredited' employers to partner with schools, improve access to jobs and better recruitment practices geared to less advantaged people.

This might be expected to be supported by everyone. However, Lyn Brown (Labour Shadow Minister for the Treasury, Comprehensive School and pre-Dearing and Fees) did not overtly back the pledge and instead questioned the concept of ‘Social Mobility’ with: “One of the things exercising me is the very notion of social mobility itself. I am not sure that it is the right concept, and perhaps the Education Committee is on to something with its report that stated that we need a broader concept such as social justice. I fear that the concept of social mobility can be used to promote what I call a grammar school society, where a few of us can get on but most cannot, where the few of us that succeed are held up as a beacon of equal opportunity, whereas in fact those lucky few are a testament to hard work, yes, but often quite a bit of luck, frankly. A society where a few kids from deprived families get to the Cabinet table but the vast majority face daily hardship is simply not an opportunity society.”


Big on rhetoric and it may be right. But surely she must see that what we really need now is action and the Social Mobility Pledge at least does something positive.

Time for action from Government

It was not a debate as such – but a plea and affirmation of an initiative that everyone surely agrees with. However, we must question why a recent senior government minister needs to do this outside of government. Such an initiative should be the ‘bread and butter’ of government action in the face of a deteriorating situation.
Along with her partners she has set up an ‘accredited’ initiative for employers. Justine Greening is to be commended along with those genuinely supporting her; both inside and outside of government and parliament. Many inside the debate acquired their education prior to Dearing and University fees. Certainly all before the change to inadequate maintenance loans. I trust they have not forgotten this that they remind others. Remember many cannot afford the bicycle, never mind living in Oxford or Cambridge. The Social Mobility Pledge indicates a willingness to support change. The government must however act with legislation and incentives if it is to be followed up. The recommendations of Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission debated last year might be a good place to look again.

See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-policies-between-1997-and-2017-time-for-change and: https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/social-mobility-2017-summit-research/

The full debate is at:
https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-03-28/debates/1A3DAAC8-BE53-4C7B-B79D-BD0425128164/SocialMobilityAndTheEconomy

See also: https://www.socialmobilitypledge.org/

Note:

The OECD describes social mobility as: ‘the extent to which individuals move up (or down) the social ladder compared with their parents’.

The Sutton Trust defines social mobility as: ‘how someone’s adult outcomes relate to their circumstances as a child’

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 

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