‘Inequality is now entrenched from birth to work’, ‘the few are being enriched at the expense of the many’, , ‘poorer children are twice as likely to be out of work later in life’, ‘child poverty is becoming the normal’, – these are a snapshot of some of the headlines in Britain over the past few months. While some might dispute the data or indeed the interpretation of the data behind an individual story there is no doubt that the overwhelming evidence is telling us that poverty, inequality and stagnant social mobility is a huge and growing problem facing our society today.
It is time to stop playing party politics with social mobility. This was the plea from Dame Martina Milburn, the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, when she came to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s hearing into the State of the Nation 2019 report.
In the packed room in the House of Commons Dame Martina was preaching to the converted – all those present, be they parliamentarians or representatives from public, private or non-governmental organisations were there because they care passionately about the lived experiences of the young and the old across the country.
For the Social Mobility Commission, the State of the Nation report is just the start of a journey. But it is a journey the commission’s small team cannot take on its own, which is why cross departmental, cross government and cross party action is key. The ‘Opportunity Areas’ in England are a clear example where Dame Martina proposed a joined-up approach. The Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions should be involved in the work alongside the Department of Education. Otherwise “it’s bonkers” she said that all the support stops at aged 19.
Location, location, location – it matters where you are born. Dame Martina pointed out that if you’re born in a rural area outside London you are 70% more likely to move to get a job if you’re from the middle classes compared to the working classes. If you want to get on, you’ve got to move out – that shouldn’t be the case she said. Policy solutions cannot all be devised by central government – regional and local challenges and opportunities need to be an intrinsic part of the equation. The twelve Social Mobility Commissioners not only have their own personal lived social mobility story but as they come from across England, they bring critical regional based thinking which aids the commission’s understanding – for example how is devolution impacting labour markets.
We are living through an age of disruption in those labour markets with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. Young people need to be equipped with the right education and skills and that means ensuring further education colleges are funded properly to provide that critical education and training. The Social Mobility Commission is calling for a Student Premium for disadvantaged students aged 16-19 that models the Pupil Premium in schools to raise attainment for those disadvantaged students.
That same call for cross sector working was evident when Dame Martina talked about the role of employers. 75% of employers require key GCSEs for entry level positions and apprenticeships but disadvantaged young people are the ones more likely to leave school without the requisite GCSE qualifications, so that disadvantaged young person could be denied an opportunity to get a job that will help them to get on in life. But a young person may have the necessary skills even if their academic qualification in English or Maths doesn’t reflect that. Many employers do their own literacy and numeracy tests anyway. So, can there be more flexibility? Is there another way to let these young people in with some level of support? And the government should lead by example on pay which is why the Social Mobility Commission has called on them to become an accredited voluntary living wage employer.
There were moments during the APPG hearing when the scale of the challenge seemed overwhelming and there was a sense of futility, but the message was clear – “it’s a marathon and not a sprint”.
The Sutton Trust is the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.