Julie Henry reports on the morning session at the Sutton Trust Social Mobility 2017 summit.

Britain’s stagnant social mobility is a “burning injustice” that needs to be tackled urgently, Justine Greening has warned in a key note speech to the Sutton Trust’s 20th anniversary conference.

Her comments, which described social mobility as “the guiding mission of the Department for Education”, puts the issue at the heart of Government and imbues it with a sense of urgency.

It comes at a time when opinion polls show increasing concern among the public about inequality. The Ipsos MORI poll, commissioned by the Trust, and published today, shows an increase in the last decade in the perceived importance of “knowing the right people and “coming from a wealthy family” when it comes to the chances of young people getting ahead in life. According to Ben Page, Ipsos MORI chief executive, anxiety about education is at its highest in a decade.

Greening said her plan was to focus on entrenched disadvantage in “region and place”. She painted a picture of a downward spiral in “coldspots” of the country where poor schools lead to poor exam results and skills, where companies move out and where good teachers are reluctant to go.

She outlined a series of policy initiatives aimed at trying to “lift up these places” through target support, tailored to the specifics of each location. “We cannot have communities where millions are being left behind”, she said.

The focus will be on a set of local authorities in the bottom third of the league tables, which contain more than half of the failing schools in England.

Through Multi-Academy Trust, Teaching Schools alliances, local authorities, regional commissioners and Ofsted, the spread of best practice will bring about the capacity to improve, said Greening. Hinting that the big stick of forced academisation could be held in check, she talked about a “less punitive” approach that focused more on support than punishment.

Twelve “Opportunity areas”, including Bradford, Blackpool, Stoke and West Somerset, will create local partnerships with early years providers, schools, colleges, universities, businesses, charities and Local Authorities. Research schools will be funded by the Educational Endowment Fund (EEF) to find out what works and to spread the best practise to nearby schools.

Partnerships with employers in these areas, so called “cornerstone companies” including Rolls Royce, Toyota, and PWC, will make a real difference to young people’s futures, said Greening. The secretary of state also announced an autumn career strategy, which will lay out what schools are expected to do to ensure young people are made aware of the opportunities that will arise from the new technical qualifications, T-levels, and apprenticeships.

Good teaching in these schools is crucial, according to Greening and it appears that the public agrees. The Trust’s Ipsos MORI poll of more than 2,000 adults puts high quality teaching in comprehensives schools at the top of their wish list of proposals that would most help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Reducing university tuition fees was the second item on the list, adding to mounting pressure on ministers to look again at the issue that has been dominating education media coverage in recent weeks.


Julie Henry reports on the afternoon session at the Sutton Trust Social Mobility 2017 summit.

The abiding message from the early afternoon “social mobility over time” session was a stark one.

Stephen Machin, professor of economics at the London School of Economics and the author of the seminal Sutton Trust report on social mobility published over a decade ago, kicked off with figures showing income/earnings mobility had fallen over time, while little had changed with class mobility.

With recent falls in real wages in the UK – only Greece has seen a bigger drop – there has also been a worsening of absolute income mobility. According to Machin, this should be a “very big warning sign” – in the US, median wages have not risen for decades.

John Goldthorpe, professor of sociology at Oxford University, agrees that young people today have less favourable mobility prospects than their parents or grandparents.

The depressing conclusion, then, seems to be that education has failed to improve social mobility. It has not been the great leveller it was billed to be. Machin goes further, suggesting it has “reinforced already existent inequalities”.

For Machin, the policy debate has been much too skewed towards education, rather than the labour market, and specifically towards elite education – namely the obsession with access to Oxbridge. Goldthorpe sees economic, fiscal and welfare policies, rather than education, as the most promising drivers going forward.

But while education may not prove the single solution to the complex problem of social mobility, the fact remains that high level qualifications are a prerequisite for high status jobs.

Anna Vignoles, professor of education at Cambridge University, made the point in the late afternoon session on the future of social mobility that the the attainment divide appears very early on, leaving pupils from poor backgrounds without the qualifications which give them access to leading universities.

For the professor, investment in human capital and skills and policies aimed at the labour market are the key to improving mobility.

Adult education and reskilling could be a means of circumventing the effect of the fightback by richer parents to initiatives which could threaten their children’s routes to the top. A view endorsed by Selina Todd, professor of history at Oxford University, who pointed out that past gains in social mobility had not loosened the viselike grip of vested interests but had been brought about by the expansion of “room at the top” jobs. Her suggestions for policy changes included ending the undue influence of the Russell Group on government decisions and scrapping the “massive tax rebates” afforded to private schools.

Naomi Eisenstadt, who was in charge of the Sure Start programme in the early years of Tony Blair’s government and now advises the Scottish Government, proposed investment in the north, more apprenticeships, evidence-based, high quality early years and a duty on head teachers to engage with employers and understand the local labour market.

Professor Becky Francis, director of UCL Institute for Education, also outlined a raft of policy measures, including focused investment in early years, better rewards for teachers and serious continued professional development (CPD) to make a difference in the classroom, where the real work was being done to try and improve the lot of disadvantaged children.

The battle to kick start social mobility was too serious to ignore, she warned: “Voters are getting impatient. Democracy is at risk if democratic systems cannot improve social mobility”.


Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Hilary or Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07917 462 164.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news