The lack of social mobility is creating a divided Britain, which not only is bad for our economy and our future, but is the defining issue of our time, as we have seen in recent elections and referendums. There is the intergenerational inequality and the lack of opportunity for young people to progress, and there is also the huge regional inequality.
We have stubborn wealth inequality, with a growing divide between rich and poor. Our country’s failings on social mobility is the national challenge. As the Social Mobility Commission’s report Time For Change: An Assessment of Government Policies on Social Mobility 1997-2017 shows, despite some progress and well-intentioned policies, progress by successive governments over the past 20 years has been painfully slow. The report states that “successive governments have failed to make social mobility the cornerstone of domestic policy”.
It highlights the fact that the challenges we faced in 1997 are very different from those we face in 2017. It rightly calls for social mobility to be at the heart of all government policy, decisions and actions, because it is only through a prolonged, determined and comprehensive government-wide strategy that we may actually start to change the entrenched inequalities and the lack of social mobility for the many.
The Sutton Trust has found that failing to improve Britain’s low levels of social mobility will cost the UK economy £140 billion a year by 2050, or the equivalent of 4 per cent of GDP. On current trends, by 2022 there will be nine million low-skilled people chasing just four million low-skilled jobs, yet there will be a shortfall of three million higher-skilled people for the jobs of the future. The economic divides are even starker when we look at the regional disparities. Output per person in London is more than £43,000 a year, yet in the north-east of England it is less than £19,000.
The SMC found that the generational divide is yawning. Over the past 20 years, poverty among pensioners has halved and their income today, on average, exceeds that of working adults. Meanwhile, young people’s earnings have fallen. It is no wonder that we saw a huge upsurge of anger, activism and engagement from younger voters at the general election. The wealth and income divide has also become much wider over the past 20 years, with top pay increasing much faster than the incomes of lower earners. In 1998 the highest earners were paid 47 times that of the lowest. By 2015 the highest earners were paid 128 times more than the lowest. Gaps in wealth have also grown exponentially, with home ownership and house price inflation benefiting the lucky few who already own their home. It is not just about the economic price we pay for these failings; as a society, these divisions are causing unrest, anger and resentment.
The social mobility agend needs to be a national mission for our country. Every budget, every bill and every policy should be judged against whether it tackles inequalities and boosts social mobility for everybody, everywhere. There needs to be a single cross-departmental plan to deliver social mobility.
That also means looking at difficult issues such as inheritance tax, transport spending and social care. All those policies need to be looked at through the lens of social mobility. However, I will focus on a few areas for which the evidence and action needed are known and relatively straightforward. The first is early years. It is well documented that by the time children reach the age of five there is already a big gap in school readiness or development between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. The charity Action for Children found that more than half of children from low-income families do not reach the expected milestones by the age of five. Often that gap is never fully closed during a child’s schooling.
Over the past 20 years we have made some progress through family support services, Sure
Start centres, quality early education and targeted approaches, such as the offer for two-year-olds. However, in recent times and with what is upcoming, the agenda seems to be moving backwards. The Government’s emphasis is now almost entirely on childcare support for working families. That is a laudable aim in itself, but it focuses huge resources away from social mobility outcomes. Almost all the money for the 30 hours of free childcare for working families and tax-free childcare will go towards better-off families.
We need a clear plan to boost social mobility in the early years. That must include quality teaching, family support, children centres getting the resources they need and boosting the early years pupil premium.
While much progress has been made at primar scholl levey, progress remains slow at key stage 4. One in three teenagers from poor families achieve basic GCSEs, compared with two thirds overall. If bright children from poor families had the same support as others, four in 10 would go to a top university. Today, only one in 10 does.
Of all the measures and policies of the last 20 years, one that stands out as transformational for our schools is the London Challenge. London went from having some of the worst schools to now achieving the narrowest attainment gap of anywhere in the country. There are two key lessonss from the London Challenge, which are now seriously at risk. Recruitment and retention are major issues. A quarter of teachers who have qualified since 2011 have left the profession. It is the poorest children and the struggling schools that suffer most when teacher numbers drop. Teachers deserve a pay rise. Real wages of teachers are down by more than 10 per cent. But it is not just about pay; it is about workload and the constant changes to curriculums and expectations. Ministers really must get a grip of the issue and do it fast.
The second learning from the London Challenge is about funding. The increase in school budgets over many years, coupled with targeted support such as the pupil premium, has had a real impact on the attainment gap, which was narrowing until very recently. It has narrowed significantly in London, where funding was boosted the most. The real terms cuts to schools’ budgets that schools are now having to make – before we even get to the national funding formula – will, again, hit the poorest hardest. Interventions, extra support and supported activities all benefit the poorest most. Recent teacher polling has shown that a third of school leaders are now using the pupil premium to plug the gaps in general funding, that almost two thirds of secondary heads had had to cut back on teaching staff and that schools with more disadvantaged intakes were the most likely to report cuts to staffing.
Government Ministers are kidding themselves if they think that the real terms cuts to school budgets, together with the teacher supply crisis, are not going to show in a widening of the attainment gap and a major step back in social mobility in our schools. Social mobility should be at the heart of education policy; every part of the system should work to unleash the talents of all young people.
That means that existing grammar schools must do more to tackle the issues, rather than entrenching advantage and damaging wider social mobility. If existing grammar schools do not reform their admissions and play their part in boosting social mobility, they should cease to receive public funding. We should be rewarding the schools that do the most for pupil progress for the majority of pupils, and that narrow the attainment gap, which is why we should reform league tables so that they show not just attainment but pupil progress, and progress in narrowing the attainment gap.
Huge gaps remain in post-16 education.We must hope that the new T-levels and quality apprenticeships will help to address that, but that will happen only if they remain focused entirely on social mobility outcomes and people do not get distracted by other agendas. Post-16 funding in Britain is still among the lowest in the OECD.
Access to university and, crucially, outcomes and access to work beyond university remain a huge concern. Too few graduates are working in graduate jobs; in fact, we have the third lowest level of graduates working in graduate jobs of all OECD countries. The only countries behind us in that league table are Greece and Estonia. That is a travesty and it brings into question whether the debt, and the exercise, is worth it. Destinations of graduates and others are still most determined not by qualification and ability but by networks and social connections.
Our economy and society pays a heavy price for people working below their ability and for wasted talent and wasted communities. The Government’s economics are false economics and will end up costing us dear in the long run. Achieving a step-change in social mobility for the many, not just the lucky few, is the challenge of our time. Opportunity and progress for the young, a new deal for left-behind communities and a radical rethink on tax and spend policies all need reshaping around a new national mission to make Britain a world leader in social mobility, not a country that sits towards the bottom of the pack, as we do today.
Lucy Powell is Labour-Co-op MP for Manchester Central. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate