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Defusing the social ‘time bomb’: There will be no social mobility without equality

A 'State of the State' survey for Deloitte by Ipsos Mori, carried out in July and August, was released this week. It shows that there has been a rapid and worrying decline in confidence in the notion of equality and prospects of greater social mobility. The pessimism in the report is palpable and should warn us that our society is degrading at an alarming rate. Education is held up as the best way forward. Meanwhile more data from 'Save the Student' reveals that many students, that have tried to do better through higher education, find themselves falling short in their studies and finances. The debt burden they then face is a metaphorical ticking social ‘time bomb’ right at the centre of our unbalanced society. The Social Mobility Commission is there to try to  defuse things. Yet their most recent reports indicate a lack of communication with, and a detachment from, a government who seem indifferent. Education may be the answer but only if it ensures everyone has the same chance to study equally. This is patently not the case.


The results of the Ipsos MORI poll ‘The State of the State in 2019’ were released earlier this week. Commissioned by Deloitte, the full report is available on their www site. The results arise from 1,360 face to face interviews during July and August to gauge ‘attitudes to some of the key challenges facing the public sector’. The section ‘Inequality and social mobility’ makes for alarming reading. The idea that there is ‘equality of opportunity‘ has dissipated to a large degree. This year, only 33% believe in it. In 2008 it was 53%; and that was bad enough. In answer to the question ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree that people have equal opportunities to get ahead?’, 48% disagreed. The effect is more pronounced in Scotland where a staggering 57% disagreed; it was 48% in England. The results overall indicate that confidence in the system, and in how our society operates, is declining very quickly. This is exacerbated by more people resigned to accepting that social mobility has stalled or declined. Only 30% think they will have a better life than their parents and 45% indicated that young people today will have a worse life. Pessimism oozes from the report and there is a ‘bad smell’ surrounding it.


The Social Mobility Commission are observers.


The government responded to the gathering crisis back in 2010 by supporting a ‘Commission’ through the Department of Education. It began as the Child Poverty Commission and by 2012 its remit was widened as the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’. Then in 2016 it became simply the ‘Social Mobility Commission’ (SMC). Many would agree that the evidence since shows that it has singularly failed in its primary mission. So much so that the entire commission resigned en masse in December 2017 (see TEFS 3rd December 2019 ‘Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’. This was largely down to few resources, a failure to appoint a full complement of commissioners and backed by a large dose of indifference from the Government. It took until May 2018 for a new chair to be appointed and the process of setting up a new SMC began slowly (see TEFS 28th May 2018 ‘Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?’ ). 

Now the hope for a fresh impetus has also dissipated wne its very light on detail 'Strategy 2019' emerged at the start of this month. Its messages have been critical and counter to what ministers wanted to hear. A report earlier this year, ‘State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ comes on the back of similar offerings from the previous SMC. It is a fine example of a scathing assessment of the situation (see TEFS 30th April 2019 ‘The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile’). The conclusion that “inequality is entrenched in Britain, from birth to work” is a good summary.


After the ‘car crash’ of an evidence session to the Parliamentary Education Committee in June (see TEFS 18th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’), the SMC finally published its report ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ with the Sutton Trust (see TEFS 25th June 2019 ‘Elitist Britain: Holding onto the powerbase’) that showed clearly why a lack social mobility has become so entrenched. Note that it didn't cover the whole of the UK as the SMC has no remit in Northern Ireland.

What are the Social Mobility Commission doing now?


It seems that some progress is being made. A call for ideas with ‘Get involved: share your ideas or join our movement for change’ was put out in August after writing a letter to the Chancellor Sajid Javid asking to “boost spending for those aged 16-19”.


But the latest quarterly report April to June 2019 shows that there has been little engagement with government ministers. A list of meetings shows that there has been no meeting with the Education Secretary since July of 2018 and three ministers have cancelled meetings or not even bothered to respond.


However, the report does show that half of its 2 million research budget has been committed. The projects commissioned to start in June 2019 and to be completed in 2020 are listed as;

How some schools in deprived areas have positive Progress 8 scores  How balanced schools can improve social mobility;  Investigating the early years workforce;  Reviewing low pay and in-work progression;  Investigating subject choice in further education and apprenticeships,  The links between apprenticeships and social mobility,  Reviewing the evidence on adult skills;  Looking at the links between social mobility and mental health  Also links between social mobility and physical health;  Do people in deprived areas have to move out of their areas to become socially mobile?  We are also looking at a project into downward mobility and the actions people take to resist becoming downwardly-mobile.


It is notable that there is no indication about who is doing the research. Nine calls for research contracts with their official titles appeared on the Government ‘Contracts Finder’ www site on 26th April 2019 www site with a closing date five working days later on the 3rd of May 2019. These are listed below this article with links the full contract details. Concerning also is that the ‘declarations of interest’ of the commissioners have not been updated. They still refer to 2016 and commissioners who resigned in 2017.

Education is the solution?


The Social Mobility Commission is attached to the department of education for good reason. There is a general acceptance that people can advance through education that opens up opportunities. Indeed, this would be the case if it walked alongside equality of opportunity. Sadly, this is not the case. TEFS has highlighted many of the barriers to equality in higher education for those with a lack of family support and fewer resources. The results of a recent ‘Student Money Survey 2019 from student advice organisation ‘Save the Student’ , ‘ further highlights the inequality that is inherent in the system. It is something that universities try to ignore when assessing attainment. Yet it is real and pressing for many of their students. It seems that financial worries and lack of resources are having a major impact upon many students. The loans and grants are not enough to balance high accommodation and living costs with family often failing to meet the shortfalls. Of the 3,385 students surveyed, 67% said that they have part-time jobs. This figure is much larger than the 36% revealed in the AdvanceHE, HEPI, Youthsight ‘Student Academic Experience Survey’ of 14,072 students earlier this year (see TEFS 19th July 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’). It is also higher than student (18-24 year olds in full time education) employment data held by the Office for National Statistics (See TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). 



A volatile mix.

The recent survey results indicate that there are may be many more students employed part-time than has been uncovered to date. This might reflect what has become known as the ‘gig’ economy where casual zero hours contracts are normal for many students with some payments made off the books. There is an urgent need to properly assess the extent of this. Activities such as gambling (8%), drug trials (2%), payday loans (3%), credit cards (14%) and adult work (4%) make up the income sources for too many students. It all adds up to those that have resources advance in their studies. Those with fewer resources must work to make up a shortfall at the expense of studying. Local employers take advantage of the need and exploit the supply of able workers readily at hand with low pay. This does not come anywhere close to meeting an aspiration of equality. If the students affected find that they do less well than better off students, yet are saddled with higher debt, then they can be forgiven for being angry. Add to this a realisation that they are being blocked in the social mobility stakes and it becomes a very volatile and unstable mixture.

Links to the full details of the Social Mobility Commission research project calls published on 26th April 2019.

1. Downward mobility: understanding the glass floor
2. Moving out to move up
3. Apprenticeships and social mobility: fulfilling potential?
4. The road not taken: the drivers of course selection
5. The relationship between mental health and social mobility
6. The relationship between poor health and social mobility
7. Progressing out of low pay
8. Evidence Synthesis in Further Education and Adult Skills
9. Balanced schools - do they make a difference to social mobility?


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

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