Social mobility alone won’t make society more equal

Janet Downs's picture

This weekend the entire Social Mobility Commission resigned.  Alan Milburn, the Commission’s chair, wrote that he was ‘deeply proud of the work the Commission has done to champion the case for greater fairness in Britain…All the main political parties now espouse a Britain that is less elitist and more equal.’  

But social mobility alone won’t create a fairer society.  Social mobility is assumed to be a good but its definition is slippery.    And social mobility can go down as well as up.

The Commission described social mobility as each generation doing better than the last.  But this depends more on a supply of jobs which pay people a fair wage for a fair day’s work. 

For others, especially politicians, social mobility is measured by education results.  If pupils and young people work hard, they will succeed, go to university and be rewarded with a ‘good’ job.  And it’s schools’ responsibility to ensure this success.

This lets politicians off the hook.  They can avoid developing policies which would help raise people out of poverty.  Instead, they put the responsibility solely on individuals and their schools.  But education’s role in raising social mobility is actually limited

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said today  that an extra 300,000 pensioners and 400,000 children have fallen into relative poverty since 2013.  The government counter this by saying absolute poverty has actually fallen.

Whichever measure is used*, there’s no doubt that there’s been a freeze on most working-age benefits (in- and out-of-work) since April 2016.   The Foundation warned: 

Further reductions to family benefits and tax credits introduced in 2017 and planned for the next few years are likely to lead to significant rises in poverty among these families.’

At the same time wage growth has stagnated.  And the fall in the value of the pound means goods from abroad are more expensive.

This increase in poverty isn’t because of schools.  It’s a combination of government policy, the 2008 financial crisis and economics.

David Laws, schools minister in the Coalition and now head of the Education Policy Institute, lets slip revealing comments his Coalition Diaries 2012-2015George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘couldn’t really care less for the poor’ (p152).  Neither Osborne nor Prime Minister David Cameron had the ‘slightest interest’ in further education, and by implication vocational education, because ‘they both felt it was an area of not much interest to “our people”’ (p18). 

Dividing the country into ‘our people’ and the rest doesn’t lead to a more equal society.  Rather it entrenches already deep social divisions.  And it gives the lie to Cameron’s much vaunted ‘Big Society’ and his claim that ‘We’re all in this together’. 

Alan Milburn said all political parties espouse greater fairness and equity, but the actions of some politicians undermine their words.  And sometimes, as when Theresa May wanted to bring back grammar schools, they don’t even realise they’re doing it.

*Full Fact describes the difficulty of defining poverty using statistics here

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