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Social Mobility in crisis: A 'Pardoner’s Tale'

There are many observers becoming very worried about the impact that the economic crisis, precipitated by the COVID-19 lockdown, will have on social mobility. This concern comes on the back of a stark realisation that social mobility in the UK is already in a poor state (see TEFS 25th October 2019 ‘Defusing the social ‘time bomb’: There will be no social mobility without equality’). Access to university education has always been a way to become upwardly mobile. But despite talk of ‘levelling up’, and efforts to attract disadvantaged students to higher education, progress has been painfully slow. The crisis has cruelly exposed the precarious lives of many people, especially students with fewer resources. The notion that greed is the "spur to economic activity" looks hollow in the face of people dying before their time. The failure of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) to alter government direction became more exposed when its Chair, Martina Milburn, resigned earlier this week. The government may have been directed by the SMC to find social inequality under every tree, but it did not act positively. Now the crisis makes it like the ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ that becomes a parable of greed versus fairness and equality in our time.

Social mobility commissioner resignation; like déjà vu all over again.

It might have been expected that the Social Mobility Commission would be first to recognise the impact on equality and educational access and react to it quickly. Over the last week, TEFS has been looking at the SMC www site for some steer on the issue. This was more in hope than expectation. Nothing about the impact of COVID-19 could be found, while elsewhere there have been copious views and analyses. Good recent examples are the Resolution Foundation’s overall analysis ‘Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis’ from the 6th May 2020, or the more university access focussed Sutton Trust report on 4th May 2020 ‘COVID-19 Impacts: University Access’. Both paint a depressing picture, but they equally serve as a warning from the present to the future. The SMC might have at least referenced these.

Instead, it came as a shock on Tuesday 5th of May that the SMC chair, Martina Milburn, had resigned her position back in April. The main reason cited was the workload of her other job with the Prince's Trust. No doubt this was a higher priority for her and probably more productive in helping people. Her letter of resignation to the Prime Minister is positive in tone on the surface, “I am extremely proud of what has been achieved at the Commission in the last two years”.

Yet there is a whiff of dissatisfaction that also dogged the earlier incarnation of the SMC, “However, it is not nearly enough and given the strong links between social mobility and poverty I fear this current crisis will only serve to make social mobility harder than ever”.

The revelation that she was appointed to lead the commission for only three days per month perhaps reflects the priority that the government places on social mobility,

“My reflections from my time in office are that appointing a Chairman on three days per month, as I was, has proved a real challenge. To make an impact, what the secretariat needs is an executive chairman on at least three days per week or a different structure – perhaps something more akin to that of the Children’s Commissioner?.”

But it is simply the case that this is even more reason to push the social mobility agenda at this pivotal time and not to back down. The response from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is somewhat subdued on this point but does acknowledge that there are “unacceptable obstacles to social mobility that remain in the United Kingdom”. Then again, he might consider that it is up to the government to “tackle” these and not the SMC.

The demise of the Social Mobility Commission – a Pardoner’s Tale.

It seems the SMC mission was to lead the way in defining inequality in our society, where it might be found and how it could be defeated. They did not have to look far and found it under every tree. The moral of ‘greed is the root of all evil’ might not have gone down well with the government in the past. However, greed may now be the downfall of our government, and even the society it represents, in these difficult times. The words of Boris Johnson in a speech at the ‘Right thinking’ Centre for Policy Studies in November 2013 (Margaret Thatcher Lecture - Boris Johnson Wednesday 27th November 2013) will surely keep coming back to haunt him. (see also TEFS 9th December 2019 ‘It’s all about equality, Brexit, the environment and the economy, not envy and greed’).

“I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

The previous incarnation of the SMC came to a shuddering halt with the resignation of its chair, Alan Milburn, and the whole of the board en masse, in 2017 (see TEFS 3rd December 2017 ‘Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’). It seems that there was considerable dissatisfaction with the level of resource given to the commission. Four commissioners, promised in 2016, had not been appointed and the SMC was backed by as few as eight staff. Despite this, their publication about the parlous ‘State of the Nation’ had embarrassed the government of the day.

It took well into the following year for a new commission to get off to a very slow start in May 2018 (see TEFS 24th May 2018 ‘Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?’). This was in response to the Education Select Committee, and Conservative MP Robert Robert Halfon, who had called for a new ‘Social Justice Commission’ that echoed the Labour plan (see TEFS 8th June 2020 ‘Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill’).

But optimism was short-lived, and by the 22nd March 2019 TEFS was asking ‘Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?’. Then again, on the 12th of April 2019 with ‘Social Mobility Commission – “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”.

This was followed by a pitiful display when giving evidence at the Education Select Committee on 18th June 2019 (see TEFS 18th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’). It surely set alarm bells ringing about what was not happening. But it seems the government did not see this as a priority. They must now regret this as the failings in social mobility are painfully exposed in the current crisis. The Education Committee is still active and doing its job with an ongoing inquiry into ’The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services’. The SMC does not appear to be scheduled to give evidence at this point but it might be expected that they would have come in for scrutiny very soon. The resignation of Martina Milburn will surely pass a ‘poisoned chalice’ onto the next SMC chair.

Higher Education inequality and a call for speeding up data release and analyses.

One thing that the SMC should be pushing for now is more timely data about the ongoing crisis in Higher Education. Failure to see the situation deteriorating as it happens will have severe long-term consequences. These data can take over a year to be exposed to external scrutiny. Yet, if there is one thing that the COVID-19 crisis has told us, it is the need for timely data. In contrast, ONS statistics by geographical area, released this week,  shows us that “deaths involving COVID-19 had occurred at more than twice the rate in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England (55.1 deaths per 100,000 people) compared with the least deprived (25.3)”. A similar differential in educational inequality being allowed to slip past scrutiny in the shadows would be unforgivable.

The Office for Students (OfS) release of widening access data yesterday is a powerful reminder of the slow progress made in the past. Their ‘Annual release of access and participation dataset’ shows in fine detail the task ahead. Covering data for five years up to the 2018/19 intake, it shows that students from low participation POLAR4 Quintile 1 areas (see Note* below) has advanced from 11.6% to 12% in that time. Some slight encouragement might be taken from a small increase in access by students from the most deprived lower Quartile 1 of areas as classified under The English Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2015. However, by deliberately accentuating the rise from 20.4% in 2014/5 to 22.1% in 2018/9 on a scale of 19 to 22 % the OfS hardly inspires confidence.

The release of key data such as this takes time to emerge. Data for the 2019/20 intake may not be seen until this time next year, by which time it is almost irrelevant. Yet the most significant data will be from the intake in 2020/21 as the full impact of the crisis emerges. This will need to be seen and acted upon urgently.

Taking the Social Mobility Commission out of the equation now is a major blow to government planning for 'levelling up' at a pivotal time. But thankfully there are many other organisations and people ringing the alarm bells very loudly. If the situation deteriorates, then the government has no excuse for not knowing and must expect very intense scrutiny in the months to come. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University

*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. The data used here is based upon POLAR Version 3. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions.


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