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Social Mobility in the UK: The Buck Stops Here

In the midst of Brexit preparations last week, a few things happened that hold out some hope for the idea of improving social mobility. However, it appears that this is still not central to government thinking at the moment. It seems that the situation has been deteriorating for many years and the government is trying to shift the blame. President Truman of the USA in the turbulent times between 1945 and 1953 had a good idea. To focus attention on who takes responsibility, he adorned his desk with a sign that stated, ‘the buck stops here’. The UK government might consider adopting this approach when addressing Social Mobility and fair opportunities for all of its citizens.

The Social Mobility Commission and the Sutton Trust together are to be congratulated for bringing the case for advancing Social Mobility into Parliament last week. Together they managed to bring a short debate, introduced by Baroness Tyler of Enfield, to the House of Lords. The question asked of the Government was “how they plan to respond to the ten steps to improve social mobility contained in the Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto, published in November 2019, and the recommendations of the Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 State of the Nation report”.

Both documents paint a stark picture of the position of the UK. The State of the Nation report was outlined by TEFS last August in ‘The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile’. Since then, the Sutton Trust has released its ‘Mobility Manifesto 2019’. This is a comprehensive document. Below the comment “In a polarised and divided society, social mobility’s power to break down barriers has never been so vital” it lists ten recommendations covering all levels of education, student support, maintenance grants, employment and paid internships. That the current manifesto echoes similar offerings from the Sutton Trust since its Manifesto of 2010 shows that there has been little movement in the UK’s position for some time.

Are Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?

To add to the pressure in the run-up to the House of Lords debate last week, the Sutton Trust released yet another analysis of the situation. With ‘Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?’ (pdf). If there were not already doubts, then they were confirmed in the report that shows that the Social Mobility situation is slowly degrading. Its usefulness is that it covers government data over the last 40 years in the UK. The headline observation that “1 in 5 men in professional occupations who were born between 1955-1961 became socially mobile but the figure for those born between 1975-1981 is only 1 in 8” indicates that there is a long way to go to enable a reversal of the long-term trend. Geographical differences and earnings coupled with access to elite jobs in London all serve to exacerbate the situation. It is clear that multiple actions will need to be taken, not just in access to education but also in the economic stability of families, the dispersal of opportunities across the UK and affordable housing availability. These are the responsibilities of government.

The House of Lord deliberations.

It is in the context of the findings above, the House of Lords met for just over one hour last Wednesday. The debate is available on Parliament TV and the introduction from Baroness Tyler starts at 17.41. She observes that the government and its manifesto paid scant attention to Social Mobility and this is generally correct. However, in the midst of general support for championing the cause of better opportunities and social mobility, it seems that some were not so enthusiastic. Lord Willets observed that wealth tied up in property is stretching away from many people and sees this as the major factor. It comes from a very ‘middle class’ perspective and ignores those climbing out of very poor conditions. However, that would seem to be in the remit of government to fix as he suggests. On the ‘passing the buck’ side, Lord Patten asserted that “government is not the only body responsible for promoting social equality and growth”.
A short clip of his argument is here:

In doing so, he concentrates on the role of teachers who “must be much more positive in their attitude to promoting aspiration in young people. That is not in government’s hands.” However, without other things that are in government hands being in place, these are surely empty criticisms of hard-pressed teachers. Indeed, with Robert Halfon reappointed as the Chair of the parliamentary Education Committee last week, it might be that education’s role in Social Mobility will reappear. Indeed, the idea of a Social Justice Commission might come to the fore again. (see TEFS 24th May 2018 ‘Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?’). This might then reignite the debate as it did before.

Scotland’s government makes a positive move.

To illustrate the role that government can take in social mobility, the Scottish government last week announced a review of how to support estranged students with ‘New research to focus on estranged students’ This is a bold step that will no doubt uncover widespread barriers for many students. These are students who have not been in care yet cannot avail themselves of support that is readily available to those students. Instead, they have no family support, financial or otherwise as they enter further or higher education. The barriers presented to such students are monumental. The pressure put upon the Scottish Government came directly from the Stand Alone charity that supports estranged students. Its director, Becca Bland, put the situation well in an article in the Guardian last week with ‘Scotland is tackling barriers for estranged students – the rest of the UK should do too’. Whilst supporting the stance taken in Scotland, she notes that “Conversely, although in England the Office for Students’ plans to widen access to top universities for disadvantaged students are well-intentioned, they miss the mark. Disadvantage should not only be defined by what area you come from, but by the strength of family capital you have.” This must change surely. TEFS has also observed that data from the AdvanceHE/Higher Education Policy Institute ‘Student Experience Survey’ indicates that there are students from all areas who are employed part-time (TEFS 9th August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Challenging the ‘disadvantage’ shibboleth’). Those affected are not just from areas of low participation. It seems that the need for such income is also a measure of economic need that should be put in the mix. 

Even when estranged students graduate, they have a mountain to climb without family support (see Stand Alone report ‘What Happens Next?’ from July 2019). I was in this position back in 1977 working all summer after graduating before moving to Cardiff to start a PhD. I come from an area of Coventry that was re-designated a POLAR Quintile 3 area from a POLAR Quintile 2 area in the latest POLAR (the participation of local areas) Version 4. I would be less of a ‘target’ in current times but many more must be in similar positions today. It has become clear to me that disadvantage cannot be measured by the area a student comes from alone; there are many factors to consider

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


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