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Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows

The Social Mobility Commission was interrogated by the Education Committee in Parliament this morning. The result was like watching a car crash in slow motion. Rather than mending the ‘broken windows’ promised from the last incarnation of the Commission, it seems the whole thing has been ‘boarded up’. It now looks like the demolition has started. Bearing in mind the sound experience of those involved, their display today looked very poor indeed. I doubt if the hearing got near to the real reasons for the situation. But lack of political will by the government on Social Mobility looks like it is demolishing the second attempt at a commission.

The evidence session this morning looked at the progress of the Social Mobility Commission. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion (the proceedings can be seen at Parliament TV). The new chair, Martina Milburn appointed nearly a year ago (see Education Committee Report of 11th July 2018), was reminded that she had promised to ‘fix the broken windows’ last year. By the end, it seemed like the windows had been boarded up and the structure was awaiting demolition.

TEFS has watched the Social Mobility agenda and the Commission with interest for some time. There is a list of some articles at the end of this latest output below. Taken together they catalogue a sorry tale.

Martina Milburn was accompanied by two others, Sammy Wright, a Social Mobility Commissioner and Sasha Morgan, Director of the Commission. It reminded me of the late Bob Monkhouse and his favourite joke: “I want to have a peaceful death in my sleep like that of my father. Not screaming in terror like the two passengers in the car he was driving at the time”. Setting aside the undoubted talent and commitment of Milburn in her work with the Princes Trust, this morning was terrible and cringe worthy at best. Had they indeed fallen asleep at the wheel. The hearing did not really get to the bottom of what is going wrong. They genuinely appeared puzzled that a commission with so many members, and seven in the secretariat to support them, could be in such a state. But the concerns came thick and fast.

Defining Social Mobility in question.

This was the most alarming aspect of the hearing. The attempts to define Social Mobility were pitiful. The Commission might do well to start with a clear definition before addressing the causes. A good start would have been the work of the OECD. A comprehensive report last year ‘A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility’ looked at the underlying causes and the position of countries around the world with regard to Social Mobility (see also: TEFS 4th May 2018 Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid.). Instead the Commission does not appear to acknowledge this pivotal work.

Even the remit was confused. Milburn referred to England, Scotland and Wales that encompasses GB. Yet when appointed to the Chair the statement referred to “The Social Mobility Commission monitors progress towards improving social mobility in the UK, and promotes social mobility in England”. The confusion is concerning. Not only is there no coherent plan to promote Social Mobility in England, there is confusion about the extent of the UK.

Diversity of the commission in question.

Committee Chair, Robert Halfon, showed a formidable grasp of the issues. He immediately questioned the diversity of those picked to serve (they are all listed below). Yet, to get a truly representative commission might seem like an impossible task. But the choices do seem to be more random and eclectic, than anything that might look like it was planned, and it is hard to see how the talents of each can be harnessed in a meaningful way. That not all have attended the monthly meetings sends out the wrong message. The excuse that some younger members find it difficult to attend meetings, as the effect of costs and time is greater than they expected for them, was feeble and was met with incredulity.

Openness and transparency in question.

It is worth remembering that windows – metaphorically or otherwise – provide some transparency and let the light in. When Ian Mearns questioned where the promised quarterly reports were, he was told that they had been published on line. He looked across at the chair with incredulity. No doubt as a professional he had looked for them in serious preparation and failed to find them. What he didn’t know was that they were only posted on line, along with the minutes of the Commission’s meetings, yesterday afternoon. This was after TEFS had contacted the committee looking for an explanation for this lack of transparency at 9.50am. Then there was the interaction below with Lucy Powell who confirmed that papers had only gone online the day before. She then questioned the lack of conflict of interest statements from the commissioners. The evasive response was astounding and typical of the whole morning. They MUST publish their conflicts of interest when on such a potentially influential commission.

Strategy and action in question.

Legitimate questions about a framework document, that had not emerged, and a coherent strategy were met with evasion and delay. It seems that little has been done. One look at the notes for the last meeting on 21st May 2019 about strategy (only posted on line yesterday) confirms there is little detail and a lack of urgency or momentum.

Political engagement in question.

Political bias emerged when Milburn said that the ’opposition’ were unhappy that the recent State of the Nation report had not showed social mobility to be worsening.

“What I found interesting about the State of the Nation report was that I understand that the government weren’t happy because social mobility hadn’t improved and the opposition weren’t happy because it hadn’t got worse.”

This aroused hostility from the committee with member James Frith calling the remark “crass” and “I don’t think that sets any kind of positive intent to start constructive dialogue early on”. Failing to gauge the importance of Social Mobility to the nation and respecting the elected representatives was a major mistake at the outset.

It then turned out that Milburn has only met with the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds once. She also admitted, when pressed hard, that the Commission had not responded to the UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston’s assessment of poverty last year despite its damming observations on the UK (Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland -Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – final report 29 April 2019). Perhaps the Department of Education masters did not approve of a response or simply that the Commission were not aware of it. After all the Commission has so far failed to grasp the contents of key OECD reports. In their recent report of the Adults skills gap they omitted to cite a detailed study from last year sponsored by the OECD, ‘Improving productivity and job quality of low-skilled workers in the United Kingdom’ that reached similar conclusions.

Research in question and a failing mission.

The committee rightly questioned the value of a £2m research budget and the need for more action not research. Milburn stressed that research projects had been commissioned for half of the money so far and that it had to be spent to avoid losing it. The committee were tiring by then and failed to interrogate what the projects were in detail. They missed a very important aspect of the failing Commission. They are not on the Commission’s www site. TEFS queried this on 30th April. At that time there were 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. Five of these that were published on the site by Friday 26th April 2019. However, the closing date for each was Friday 3rd of May 2019. 

One project, ‘Invitation to tender (ITT) for Downward Mobility: Understanding the Glass Floor’ was stressed by Milburn as exciting and that the academic on the Commission, Sam Friedman of the LSE, was keen to see it progress. The tender document is 37 pages with a series of complex requirements. The expectation was 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’s timing 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 ("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’. It is hoped that a ‘conflict of interest’ is not lurking amongst the commissioners with £2m in research contracts at stake.

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

Past TEFS articles on Social Mobility and the Commission.

Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’.
December 03, 2017

Social Mobility and the Economy: Another debate, plea and a pledge.
March 30, 2018

Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?
May 24, 2018

Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid.
May 04, 2018

Social Mobility, Higher Education and Driving with the Handbrake on.
July 20, 2018

Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures?: The progress in ten years.
August 03, 2018

Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?
March 22, 2019

Social Mobility Commission – “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
April 12, 2019

The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile.
April 30, 2019

Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill
June 08, 2019

Members of the Social Mobility Commission.

· Alastair da Costa, Chair of Capital City College Group
· Farrah Storr, Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan
· Harvey Matthewson, volunteer, and part-time Sales Assistant at Marks & Spencer
· Jessica Oghenegweke, Project Co-ordinator at the Diana Award
· Jody Walker, Senior Vice President at TJX Europe (TK Maxx and Home Sense in the UK)
· Liz Williams, Group Director of Digital Society at BT
· Pippa Dunn, Founder of Broody, helping entrepreneurs and start ups
· Saeed Atcha, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Xplode magazine
· Sam Friedman, Associate Professor in Sociology at London School of Economics
· Sammy Wright, Vice Principal of Southmoor Academy, Sunderland
· Sandra Wallace, Managing Partner UK and Joint Managing Director Europe at DLA Piper
· Steven Cooper, most recently, Chief Executive Officer Barclaycard Business, moving to Chief Executive Officer C.Hoare & Co


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