Reform and renew: the twin track approach to tackling social mobility

13 December 2017

Social mobility has been in the news again recently, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The Social Mobility Commission in their fifth State of the Nation report recently warned about the stark post-code lottery which exists in our country. This was followed days later by the dramatic walk-out of the Commissioners led by Alan Milburn and Baroness Gillian Shepherd. Their overwhelming concern, that the Government has run out of ideas, and political will to tackle low social mobility, will strike a chord with many.

The problem of low social mobility is well rehearsed. Just half of disadvantaged toddlers reach the expected level of development at the age of five, with many never catching up. The biggest indicator of how well a child does at GCSEs is the progress that child has made by the age of five. The gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers is equivalent to two years of learning by the time they sit their GCSEs.

We need a cross-government social mobility strategy, with strong political leadership driving this forward from the heart of government, with every budget, every bill and every government policy assessed to ensure it reduces inequality.

The answer to boosting social mobility must start in the early years, with fully joined-up services and support available to every family, with home visits in place to offer new parents support and identify any problems in a child’s development, or family relationships, before they take root. In Manchester, where I’ve been asked by Mayor Andy Burnham to lead efforts to boost the numbers of children school-ready, we have an innovative joined-up early help service. Every child is seen eight times by local services, working from multi-agency children’s centres, with specialist referral where necessary to tackle communication difficulties, or other problems. The programme is beginning to bear fruit, yet the precariousness of local government finance in an age of austerity, and the way services have previously been siloed, means that there has to be a determined effort to break down barriers and ensure the resources for success.

Alongside renewed early help services, access to high-quality teacher-led early education and care is vital for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged. Currently three-quarters of new money being spent on early education and care over this Parliament will go to the top half of earners. In fact, my analysis with the Social Market Foundation shows that just £250 million of the £9 billion investment will go to help the poorest. If we’re to tackle social mobility, tax-free childcare which overwhelmingly benefits higher earners, should be scrapped, and these funds invested in expanding universal “free” hours particularly for disadvantaged children.

Investment and reform should go hand in hand. Reform of Ofsted’s assessment of the early years, and of the early years foundation stage to make them more focused on tackling inequality and closing the development gap pre-school is vital. Shared teacher-time, and more joint working between high-quality early years providers and less well-performing settings is critical too if we’re to expand access to quality provision.

The prize measured by transformed life chances, and the boost to our productivity and economy, of better social mobility, is great. We now need an ambitious plan from Ministers rather than hollow words.

Lucy Powell MP, Member, Education Select Committee and Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Families in the Early Years



This article was published in Reform’s social mobility conference brochure on the 12th December 2017. You can read the brochure here.



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