Conor Ryan on why social mobility should be a key issue in the 2015 election.

Justine Greening, the development secretary, remembered her days working at Morrison’s, and warned that her party needed to do more to improve social mobility, in last week’s Spectator. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, spoke this week of a ‘Downton Abbey-style society’ that ‘bears down on working class people’s voice and aspirations.’ The new children’s minister Sam Gyimah recalled a period of undergraduate penury while at Oxford in an interview in the  Independent .

And, as Lee noted in his recent blog, Alan Milburn’s latest report catalogued once again the extent to which our elites are dominated by those who are privately and Oxbridge-educated, drawing heavily on Trust research.

All these public figures know what they are talking about. They have gone from modest beginnings to become senior figures in British public life. Their pronouncements have the greater credibility because of that life experience. But the overall message is the same: we’re not doing nearly enough in Britain to improve social mobility.

That’s why today’s Mobility Manifesto matters so much. The problem is illustrated starkly by two statistics that highlight the entrenched nature of these inequalities. At age five, there is already a 19 month gap in school readiness between the richest and poorest children.  A young person from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods is ten times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than a child from the poorest fifth.

As the manifesto points out, these disparities continue into adulthood and, despite good higher education access, as the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher pointed out this week, too much of how well you do in later life is still determined by your parents’ income.

The manifesto offers ideas across the educational spectrum, from early years through to better apprenticeships and fairer university access. Some proposals many not make any party pledge card, such as improved career guidance, but are no less important for that, and should feature in every party’s overall education policy. Some ideas go with the grain of political consensus – sharpening the pupil premium, backed by more evidence-based policy or a professional development guarantee for teachers. Others like an enrichment voucher for less advantaged parents extend its logic.

Others are clearly more controversial, such as our Open Access proposals to open up the 100 leading independent day schools, yet those who criticise the idea don’t offer any serious alternatives or the idea that comprehensive schools should have fairer admissions.

For the manifesto, we asked YouGov to test public reaction to one perennial issue on which political hand-wringing is often most pronounced: school admissions. Most schools use distance from the school as the main criterion for admissions to their school. They have to prioritise children in care, and often prioritise brothers and sisters of existing pupils too. But in ‘comprehensive schools’, distance rules.

Last year, we showed again the consequences of this approach. The 500 comprehensives – maintained schools and academies – with the best GCSE results took half as many disadvantaged pupils as the national average. Only one in ten of the top 500 bucked that trend. A few weeks ago, Lloyds Bank calculated that the average premium in house prices in the catchment area of top schools is £22,000, and it is often much more.

Of course, in rural areas and market towns, a neighbourhood admissions policy is probably the only practical solution. But that’s not true in the cities. We showed earlier this year that a small but growing number of academies is using random allocation (ballots) or ability banding (across the range of abilities) to achieve a fairer intake. These tend to be oversubscribed schools where a catchment area is a moveable measure and increasingly arbitrary as a result.

We’ve said that we want to see ballots for school admissions for some time, but what do parents think? Given the scenario of a popular comprehensive academy with 100 places and 400 applicants, the poll of 1169 parents across Britain (obtained from an overall general sample of British respondents) showed that 28% of parents thought all the places should be allocated by a ballot or randomly, 41% thought places should go to those living nearest the academy and 19% thought that half the places should be allocated by ballot and half by distance. In total 47% believed that ballots should play a part in the oversubscribed school’s admissions. Equally, by a margin of 41% to 29%, parents believed that that all children should have the opportunity to go to private school, regardless of family income, at the Government or taxpayer’s expense.

What this suggests is that when presented with a realistic scenario – and the best urban comprehensives are heavily oversubscribed – the public recognises that things might need to be done differently to be fairer. We’re hoping the political parties are open about the challenges, and that they will be brave and ambitious in their plans to tackle social mobility for the 2015 general election.

We’ll be taking this message to the three main party conferences over the next month, where leading figures from each party will debate different proposals from our manifesto. Whatever the result of next Thursday’s Scottish referendum, the problem of poor social mobility will still be with us. That’s why our manifesto ideas should have prominence in their manifestos for 2015.

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