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Social mobility since 2013? Now COVID-19. Ouch!

A report by the Social Mobility Commission this week finally addressed the effect of the COVID-19 crisis. In assessing how the Government has performed since 2013, it produced what could be the quote of the year “Key fact: 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty, compared to 2012. This is projected to increase markedly as a result of COVID-19”. This sits uneasily alongside the main conclusion that a total of 77% past recommendations resulted in either ‘little or no action’ or ‘insufficient progress’. Unkind observers might conclude that there has been willful neglect by the government for too long. This might be the result of too many vested interests in the status quo. But the current economic downturn has cleared the table and it might just focus the attention more. 



The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) released its latest analysis this week in ‘Monitoring social mobility 2013–2020: Is the government delivering on our recommendations?. It will come as little surprise to many that the 'advances' have been largely disappointing. The report emphasises that inaction by the Government in many areas is the root cause with “highlighting the disappointing level of government action on the commission's key social mobility recommendations over the last 7 years”. TEFS has been critical of the SMC in the past (see *NOTE below) about its progress and failure to take account of other important studies; particularly key reports by the OECD (see TEFS 13th September 2019 ‘The UK position in the OECD ‘Education at a Glance 2019 report’). More recently, there have been concerns that they had not responded to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis (see TEFS 8th May 2020 ‘Social Mobility in crisis: A 'Pardoner’s Tale'). However, the new report goes some way to address this in recognising that “Social mobility has never been more important. It is the poor and the young who will suffer most from the economic downturn”. 



Looking under the rock. 


Instead of producing yet another ‘State of the Nation’ report that the government could ignore, the SMC cleverly decided to turn the tables by looking under the rock and asking awkward questions. This seems to be the parting shot of its erstwhile chair, Martina Milburn. The second time a chair of the SMC has walked out ( See TEFS 3rd December 2017 ‘Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’). 

The report summarises answers to fifty-two questions asked of the Government about what they had done. The answers were scored as 0 = No demonstration, 1 = Some demonstration, 2 = Reasonable demonstration and 3 = almost or full demonstration of ‘Intent’, ‘Process’ and ‘Outcome’. These were then converted into a RED, AMBER or GREEN classification. The result was that 31% of the answers were RED ‘little or no action’. A total of 77% were either RED ‘little or no action’ or AMBER ‘insufficient progress’ combined. Only 23% were classified as GREEN ‘strong progress’. 

The overarching recommendation in the past was that there should be a cross-departmental coordinated approach to social mobility. This is met with “At present there is no meaningful coordination between departments on the social mobility agenda, and no single force championing social mobility across government”. The Government might argue that this fits the role of the SMC itself, even if it has few resources and little real influence. But it should not duck out of its responsibility. Back in June 2017 (see ‘Time For Change: An Assessment of Government Policies on Social Mobility 1997-2017’) the Social Mobility commission clearly identified a major sticking point with “We recommend that in future Prime Ministers should ensure the whole of government owns the social mobility agenda by putting in place a single cross-departmental plan to deliver it”. There is little sign of this happening in 2020. 

Covid-19 impact. 

The report is the first recognition of the effect that the COVID-19 crisis will exert on social mobility. This in turn provides the most devastating quotation from the report that essentially says it all about failed policy and complacency. 

“Key fact: 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty, compared to 2012. This is projected to increase markedly as a result of COVID-19” 

There is no doubt that many families will find themselves short of money and struggling to provide for their children. The knock-on effect on their education will last for a generation at least. Those with capital behind them, or jobs that can be retained, will race ahead and widen the gap between those who have and those who do not. This will be seen in access to our universities in the next few months without strong affirmative action.

Higher Education is missing. 

TEFS is all about equality in education and so was immediately drawn to Chapter 3 ‘Education’. It is probably fair to say that access to education is the main way to further the chances of achieving social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds. 

But questions about the role of universities are disappointingly missing. In the section on ‘Post-16 education’ it states that “In this section, we analyse the government’s response to our recommendations on post16 education – most of which relate to the further education sector. Most of our higher education recommendations focused on universities and other regulatory bodies, and so fall outside of the scope of this report.” It is hoped there will be an update on Higher Education and questions put to the Office for Students about recommendations in last year’s ‘State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ report. The role of universities is a strong factor in this report with 125 mentions. One recommendation was that “UCAS, working closely with the OfS, universities and others, should develop a system which displays all financial support (bursaries, scholarships and ad hoc funds) available to undergraduates alongside their eligibility criteria which can be accessed in a simple, centrally accessible, user-friendly and digitally smart format”. The UCAS www site currently has very minimal advice with “If your student loan won’t nearly be enough to cover your university costs, check out these extra pots of money knocking around to help with living expenses and tuition fees”. The somewhat patronising and dismissive use of the vernacular is followed by superficial and general advice that simply explains ‘Scholarships, grants, and bursaries’ and how to approach various sources of help without giving links. Clearly, this fits into the RED category. 

What is Social Mobility anyway? 

This seems to depend on the perspective of who is answering. TEFS (4th May 2018 ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’) defined Social Mobility from the perspective of the 'Economists tale' or the 'Sociologist’s tale’. The former distils down simply to earning more money than your parents. The latter engages in multiple contortions of definitions about various categories of social class or disadvantage. This approach leads to some in the UK thinking it is not a problem at all. A 209-page online book ‘Social Mobility Truths’ by Peter Saunders was published by Civitas last year. Saunders is former Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex and now a Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. Civitas strives to “benefit public debate through independent research, reasoned argument, lucid explanation and open discussion”. However, many observers see it as an overtly 'right-of-centre think-tank'. Who funds it is not clear and it gets a low E0 rating ‘No or negligible relevant information provided’ from ‘Who Funds You?’

Saunders makes the fundamental mistake of peddling in ‘truth’, something an objective scientist would steadfastly avoid. Science simply provides the best explanation of how nature works based upon current evidence. There is no assumption of ‘truth’. However, undeterred, there are a total of twenty-four ‘truths’ discussed. Starting with “Truth #1 Social mobility in Britain is widespread” he cites evidence from the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2019 report. He says that “65 per cent of people born to working-class (defined as semi-routine and routine worker) parents have been upwardly mobile, and 40 per cent of those born to professional-managerial parents have been downwardly mobile”. However, the SMC report concludes that “despite the growth in the number of professional jobs, those from professional and intermediate backgrounds continue to get most of these top jobs, squeezing out those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds” and “Just 34 per cent of people from working-class backgrounds work in professional occupations, compared to 60 per cent of those from professional backgrounds”. The Telegraph seized on the same idea and reported in November 20119 that ‘Social mobility is the norm, with two-thirds of working class upwardly mobile, study reveals’

Another, “Truth #9 The different rates of occupational success achieved by children from different class backgrounds are consistent with what would happen if recruitment were based solely on ability“ is supported by the not so 'rigorous' evidence that “The strong link between class and IQ is further reinforced because successful, bright men and women often end up mating with each other (many of us meet our future partners at university or through work)”. Thus reinforcing the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Or in my case 'them' and 'us'.

Social mobility measures must be wide-ranging. 

The answer about what is social mobility lies across the complete spectrum of the two perceptions. The evidence is therefore complex and multi-faceted. Indeed, this appears to be the approach of the SMC. But the SMC report this week again missed other important work to back up its conclusions. 

The World Economic Forum produced a comprehensive overview in January and introduced a new and wide-ranging index of social mobility with ‘Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society The Global Social Mobility Report 2020 Equality, Opportunity and a New Economic Imperative’. Their “Global Social Mobility Index focuses on those policies, practices and institutions that collectively determine the extent to which everyone in society has a fair chance to fulfil their potential, regardless of their socio-economic background, the origin of their parents, or the place where they were born”. In assessing 82 global economies, it considered: 1. Health; 2. Education (access, quality and equity, lifelong learning); 3. Technology; 4. Work (opportunities, wages, conditions); and 5. Protection and Institutions (social protection and inclusive institutions). The result is a rounded view of where the UK stands in relation to other nations. It is worth quoting their assessment of the UK here. 

“With a score of 74.4, the United Kingdom ranks 21st on the index. Despite a high score on the Education Access pillar (82.5), it lags behind its regional peers in overall Education Quality and Equity (69.1) because of high pupil-to-teacher ratios (especially in pre-primary education where the ratio is among the highest in the OECD). The United Kingdom has significant disparities in educational quality between schools, and limited social diversity within schools. Despite a high score on social protection access (79.4), one strategy for further improvement could be providing additional active labour market policies which could help the long-term unemployed population gain entry back into regular employment. Another area for improvement concerns the country’s score on the Fair Wages pillar (53.1), where it ranks relatively low in comparison with its European peers, with an incidence of low pay of 19.3%”. 

The general conclusion is that we have a long way to go to achieve a fair society. There are many vested interests out there who set out to confound any attempts to improve things. The SMC conclusions this week also tend to point toward some wilful neglect by the Government. The only hope now is that the COVID-19 inflicted economic downturn will focus their attention more. This may turn out to be a forlorn hope as a vested interest in the status quo prevails. 

Whatever you want, Whatever you like, Whatever you say, You pay your money, You take your choice.


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 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

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