Familiarity breeds contempt. Rewind 20 years and few outside academia would recognise the term ‘social mobility’. But now the phrase seems to pepper every other government press release and a number of organisations, the Sutton Trust included, defines its work in this way.
Much of this interest can be attributed to the seminal 2005 study by LSE, which the Trust funded, which looked at low mobility in the UK compared to other countries.
But to what extent is the term still helpful to describe the sort of society we want to live in, especially in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement today that Labour would replace the Social Mobility Commission with a body looking at social justice?
Critics argues two main points: that social mobility excuses inequality and those left behind by a properly-functioning meritocracy; and that it focuses the debate on a small group of bright low income youngsters who ‘escape’ their roots for something better.
Firstly, we have always believed that social mobility is not just about what might loosely be described as the ‘top end’. It needs to encompass inequalities in access to early years provision, primary and secondary schooling, technical education and further and higher education, as well as access to the workplace.
And of course opportunities are not just influenced by education, but by a complex web of policy issues, including tax, welfare, housing, transport and the labour market.
It is also the case that social mobility and inequality are closely linked. Those countries which tend to be more socially mobile, are also those where the gap between the bottom and the top is smaller. So social mobility doesn’t sit in isolation – if it does, any policy prescription is destined to fail.
We are very clear: social mobility should always be about more than who goes to top universities and gets well paid and influential jobs.
But we do low income young people a huge disservice if we do not strive to offer them the same opportunities as their better off peers. And we do society a disservice if we are content with the upper echelons being the reserve of the most privileged.
The dominance of the better off in our top universities and highest-performing schools is well documented. The high representation of the privately educated in the media, in law, medicine, business, finance and politics is also no secret.
And all this matters, not just in terms of individual opportunity, but because it matters to society who our leaders are and what experience they bring to their roles. They influence what we see and hear, and what policies are enacted and priorities determined.
None of this should mean of course that other areas of educational inequality should not be tackled. It is not a zero sum game. We should also care passionately about those whose talents lie elsewhere, or who are struggling with the basics at age 11, or worried about leaving school with no qualifications at age 16.
And nor should individual success be defined solely in terms of wealth or influence or collecting a stash of elite educational credentials. Health, happiness and well-being are critical, as is due recognition of those that go into noble professions like teaching, nursing or charity work.
But if an opportunity exists, it should be equally available to those from poor homes as those from affluent backgrounds. And all young people should have the chance to make an informed choice about their own futures, whether that lies in the law courts of London or in a factory in their home town.
If social mobility is a term that galvanises action on this broad front, then surely it remains a useful rallying cry? It is right that we should critically examine what work will make the most difference to the poorest in our society, but what exactly would be the difference between a set of policies focussed on social justice, compared to those focussed on social mobility? And if there is a difference, are they genuinely mutually exclusive?
The danger of losing faith with ‘social mobility’ is that it allows the status quo – the hugely unfair and unequal status quo – to continue. Or worse, it provides a space for the chasm in opportunities to grow yet wider.