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The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile.



With little warning, The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) released today its belated, and somewhat fiercely critical report, ‘State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain’. It is a final and comprehensive attestation of failed government policies. There now seems to be an unseemly rush to get further research going and to spend the £2million promised by government.

The report was promised when the revamped SMC started in December of last year and scheduled originally for March 2019. The extent of the report itself indicates that much of it must have arisen from efforts prior to the SMC relaunch, and before the new board had settled in. Although The SMC is supposed to “monitor progress towards improving social mobility in the UK” (see What the Social Mobility Commission does), the report strangely observes that, “The Commission’s remit does not extend to Northern Ireland” that is certainly in the UK and where the situation is undoubtedly worse.


The launch of the report came earlier today after a warning first appeared on the SMC Twitter feed yesterday. The location and those attending was not specified and many observers might not have been expecting it to appear this week at all. This was because there was no prior announcement on the SMC www site to indicate its arrival into the public domain.


However, the SMC report pulls no punches and it starts the 170 pages with;

“In this our sixth State of the Nation report we lay bare the stark fact that social mobility has stagnated over the last four years at virtually all stages from birth to work. Being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap.”


No hiding place and surprise reactions.


The media reactions today revealed a degree of surprise at how critical the SMC’s offering was with further statements from the SMC such as; “This work is more critical than ever. Research shows that living standards are getting worse for the working class and for young people. If we do not address the soaring costs of housing, the wellbeing of our worse in future years.”


This, and the underlying evidence presented, kills off any notion that the current government has done anything meaningful for ‘Social Mobility’ since at least 2014. It is a final and comprehensive attestation of failed government policies. The BBC described it as ’Inequality in UK 'entrenched'. This view was mirrored in similar reports from all quarters, such as ‘Social mobility has stagnated and is in danger of going into reverse’ in the Telegraph and ‘Social mobility in UK 'virtually stagnant' since 2014’ in the Guardian.


There is indeed no hiding place for government in this damning report that comes after the previous SMC Board resigned ‘en masse’ in 2017 and no ‘annual’ report emerged in 2018. The current report is therefore long overdue. Two responses from Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, rang very hollow and were reported as “We must all work together to create change in the lives of the most disadvantaged. I welcome Dame Martina’s leadership in this area, shining a light on where we can continue raising the bar.” and “employment had risen in every UK region under this government; wages were outstripping inflation; the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed; and the proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds in education or apprenticeships was at its highest ever”. It is almost as if the report came as much a surprise to him as it did to many others. An official government response citing actions to be taken is essential and urgently needed.


Evidence and recommendations that are ‘hungry’ for a response.


The report itself covers a wide range of issues from disadvantages in early years, schools, further and higher education to working lives. On living standards, it is observed that “There are now 500,000 more children in poverty than in 2012”. This is a national disgrace that must be addressed.


From a TEFS perspective, there are some notable observations and recommendations. A call is made for the government to introduce a “Student Premium for disadvantaged students aged 16-19.” Although not mentioned, this in effect aims to reverse the catastrophic scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (or EMA) in England that was one of the first actions of the then coalition government. Interestingly, it remains in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (where I campaigned to keep it) in some form. However, the SMC sees the ‘Student Premium’ as a move that would be similar to the ‘Pupil Premium’ currently applied to schools. This is additional funding to schools, not pupils directly, and is related to the number of children who register for free school meals.


However, the paradox is that, in the context of declining school budgets, the SMC, is “concerned that Pupil Premium funding is not being used effectively by all schools to narrow the gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers”. They recommend that the 'Pupil Premium' must be “effectively targeted”. One wonders what is happening to the additional funds.


The SMC use free school meals as the main evidential plank on which to stand their deliberations of disadvantage in schools. But the government approach has been to look again at free school meals. From 2013, all those coming onto the new ‘Universal Credit’ were eligible for free school meals. However, now this is to be severely truncated and the plans led to an outcry in 2017 and early last year. ‘Universal Credit’ alone will no longer guarantee free school meals and the increase in reports of starving children arriving at school is the inevitable consequence. After a review in 2017, the government response was set out last year in ‘Free School Meals and the Early Years Pupil Premium’ with “If all children in families receiving Universal Credit were to become eligible for a taxpayer-funded free school meal this would mean that around half of school age pupils would be eligible compared to a current rate of around 14%.” This is astonishing and illustrates how a key measure of disadvantage can be manipulated to hide a growing problem.


Higher education and disadvantage.


Whilst free school meals are used as the main measure of deprivation in schools, POLAR classifications are deployed by the SMC in relation to widening access to universities. Nevertheless, the depressing data used in the report are all too familiar and reveal little is changing. Unfortunately, the SMC falls into the trap of equating POLAR quintile areas, that only measure participation, with advantage or disadvantage. However, they do acknowledge at one point that only 5% of students who had free school meals go to university, whereas the proportion going overall is recorded as much higher for those from POLAR Quintile 1, low participation areas (discussed in TEFS 22nd April 2019 ‘POLAR whitewash fails to cover all surfaces’). Thus, the situation is far worse than the POLAR based analysis suggests and the SMC should try to address this further.


Working students.

One surprise for TEFS is that the SMC have, in a small way, acknowledged two of the main constraints on students from low income families. They accept that students who have part-time jobs or who commute longer distances, have less time to engage in studies and university life. This is well established (see TEFS 7th December 2018 ‘Students working in term-time: Can we see the full picture please?’) but also needs to be further acknowledged. It might also be accepted that so the called “Cultural Barriers” that are discussed at length are less of an issue than and lack of time and family funds. Nevertheless, the SMC were so concerned that they commissioned a limited survey by upRreach. They concluded that, of the 50 full-time students surveyed, “90% had household income levels below £26,000. Forty had to work to support their living costs and 12 had to work more than 16 hours per week during term time.” This is only the tip of the iceberg of a major problem and this should be much higher on the research priorities of the SMC.


Research priorities and a rush job.


When launched, the SMC plan was to spend up to £2 million released by government for research projects from April 2019. To this end, it appears that this is in fact happening. However, you will not find anything on the SMC www site and only some reference in Twitter posts. Instead there are a list of ‘Invitations to Tender’ from the Department of Education that can be sourced by searching ‘Social Mobility Commission’ on the government’s Contracts Finder Site. At this time, there appear to be five of these that were published on the site last Friday, 26th April 2019. None relate to the extent of students working and losing valuable study time. However, the closing date for each is this Friday, the 3rd of May 2019. One, ‘Invitation to tender (ITT) for Downward Mobility: Understanding the Glass Floor’ , is a 37 page document (that is dated V5 9th January 2019) with a series of complex requirements, not least of which is a full justification of costs for a one year project to 30th March 2020 for up to £150,000. The expectation is that “Bids should contain a detailed and ambitious qualitative methodology, given the challenges in conducting analysis of this kind for the first time”. Although the tender is below the threshold for EU tendering for contracts for social and other specific services (£615,278 from January 2019), it is under the recommended minimum of 10 days for a bidder to respond; as recommended in Guidance on the new transparency requirements for publishing on Contracts Finder with "It is recommended that the minimum time required to submit a tender response is 10 working days". It could be argued that this is not in the spirit of the guidance or the ‘Public Contracts Regulations 2015’ . I note here that, in 37 years of successful bidding for competitive research contracts, I have never seen such a tight deadline strictly imposed on those bidding to do research. I would never consider making such a bid in any circumstance and others may feel the same. The expectation is astounding and likely to affect the quality of most bids.

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

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