It seems an age ago since Theresa May spoke of her vision of a truly meritocratic Britain. In her first statement as prime minister, she talked about addressing issues of social mobility and helping those who are ‘just about managing’.
It was laudable rhetoric, but sadly her words have failed to translate into any tangible action to help those in most need. Social mobility is a casualty of the current political turmoil and has become a neglected priority. The government’s own social mobility barometer found that “63 per cent of people feel that those who are ‘just about managing’ are not getting enough support from government compared with 2 per cent who say that they are getting too much support.”
As Brexit dominates the legislative agenda and the government machinery has become preoccupied and paralysed with leaving the EU, social mobility efforts have stalled. The sense of drift is clear – and things have not improved since the government’s ex-social mobility chief Alan Milburn resigned back in December 2017, citing his frustration with the government’s ‘indecision, dysfunctionality and lack of leadership’ on this issue.
So not only have we become a country divided on the EU, but we face worrying divides over our life chances. Progress in life still depends on a myriad of factors including where you live, your social background, and household income. The all party parliamentary group on social mobility has provided an additionally damning indictment of the state of social mobility in the UK. Its recent report highlighted that areas of low social mobility in England are likely to deteriorate further in comparison to the rest of the country. Research also shows that children with poor vocabulary age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed at age 34.
This should be a cause for concern as it will have huge social repercussions, reinforcing divisions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It serves to fuel narratives of ‘us versus them’, corroding hopes for a more cohesive and prosperous society. Sustained efforts to improve social mobility are needed to prevent social resentment and political disenfranchisement increasing. It is no coincidence that there is a strong statistical link between areas of low mobility and areas that voted for Brexit.
There are compelling economic reasons for addressing social mobility too. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust shows that increasing social mobility to levels equal with those across western Europe could boost our GDP by an estimated 2 per cent. This is equivalent to £590 per person or £39bn to our economy as a whole.
So what steps should we take to reignite some much-needed impetus into the social mobility agenda? The first is to make social mobility a political priority once more. The solutions to the problem are not revolutionary but require an injection of leadership and political will, which has been profoundly lacking from a government exhausted by Brexit.
In policy terms, the key priority should be to refocus energy towards early years education. The educational gains children make early in life stick with them as they grow up, and help with their progression throughout school.
It is essential every nursery has high quality teachers who are appropriately qualified and can instil confidence early on in children. This provides a solid foundation for them to excel and brings us closer to closing the attainment gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged.
Even at the beginning of school, children from disadvantaged backgrounds can lag behind their wealthier counterparts. Closing this gap is crucial, as this disparity can continue in later life and affect future prospects. Beyond the early years, investment must be targeted to provide extra support for teachers in deprived areas, so all pupils can benefit from a first-class education.
Education is key, but it must be accompanied by measures across a number of other policy areas. We require collaboration from local authorities and businesses to address the inequalities that blight life chances. Recruitment must be open to talent from all backgrounds, while affordable housing and better transport connectivity can help address regional differences in social progress. According to the social mobility commission, the Midlands is the worst region of the country for social mobility among people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In contrast, London has the best local authority areas for social mobility.
A person’s life chances should not be limited simply because of where they grow up or who their parents are. The ultimate goal should be for everyone to make the most of their potential, to be able to access secure and meaningful work that pays well and has good working conditions. Improving social mobility must be the top of the agenda for a future Labour government, with a well thought-out set of policies across education and beyond.