“Is the coalition government doing enough to encourage social mobility?”

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2013

social-mobilityThat was the question I was asked to answer for a new magazine, The New Idealist (available online here). Here’s what I said…

Social mobility: it’s a phrase much-beloved by politicians from all three parties. Who, after all, can possibly disagree with the fine sentiments of Nick Clegg in his social mobility strategy paper, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers (April 2011)?

In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do. Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next. The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities. That is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy.

Let me ask you another question, though: when did you last hear anyone unconnected with the Westminster Village — an ‘ordinary voter’ — talk about social mobility? It doesn’t even rate a mention in Ipsos MORI’s polls tracking the issues of concern: unsurprisingly, the economy comes top.

This chasm between how the Government talks about the principal goal of its social policy and the concerns of the public is in itself a problem. But perhaps more telling is the way all parties are happy to engage with social mobility as a smokescreen for the debate that still matters more: how is inequality best tackled?

Before we address that question, though, let’s be clear about our definitions. The extent to which you’re able to do better than your parents were — what’s termed absolute social mobility — may simply be a function of economic growth or technological change. How likely it is you’ll be able to move up (or down) the social or income ladder compared to others is what’s known as relative social mobility. The political focus is on the latter measure, as Nick Clegg’s white paper makes clear:

For any given level of skill and ambition, regardless of an individual’s background, everyone should have an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket.

In other words, the Coalition’s priority is delivering equality of opportunity. The drive has been, therefore, to improve the education of the poorest in society. The reason why is not surprising. A five year-old child living in poverty today is already the equivalent of eight months behind their better-off peers in terms of cognitive development. And this gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds increases throughout their time at school.

One of the Lib Dems’ top priorities at the 2010 general election was the introduction of what’s known as the ‘pupil premium’, significant new funding targeted at low-income pupils. Implemented by the Coalition, it will be worth up to £1,300 for each eligible child by 2015. The aim is clear: to reduce the attainment gap and enable everyone to get on in life.

But equality of opportunity cannot stop at 18. The Coalition’s higher education reforms in England, though undoubtedly controversial and politically costly to the Lib Dems, mean the poorest 30% of university graduates will pay back less overall than under Labour’s fees system while the richest will pay more. Potential students seem to have noticed: application rates from disadvantaged areas hit their highest level ever in 2013.

Vince Cable has also emphasised the critical importance of adult education citing his own family experiences:

My mother’s escape from domestic drudgery and isolation occurred at adult education college when she was 40. Our family was fortunate to have these opportunities and want the present generation to have the same.

And beyond formal education, apprenticeships have been expanded, with almost half-a-million created in 2010-11, two-thirds more than in Labour’s last year in office.

In its own terms, then — delivering equality of opportunity — the Coalition is doing a lot. The big question is whether improvements to the education system will be enough to advance relative social mobility, the Coalition’s stated aim.

The evidence suggests not. As Oxford professor John Goldthorpe has highlighted, relative social mobility remained broadly static for most of the twentieth-century despite all the changes thrown at the education system. And in his neutrally scholarly way he had laid down a serious gauntlet to politicians of all stripes:

… [if] the creation of a more fluid and open society is a serious goal, then politicians will need to move out of the relative comfort zone of educational policy and accept that measures will be required, of a kind sure to be strongly contested, that seek to reduce inequalities of condition.

This, at last, gets to the heart of the issue: inequality.

There has long been a tension between the liberal goal of equalising opportunities and the social democratic goal of equalising outcomes. The Coalition has explicitly prioritised the former, both through its education and training measures and by preferring to incentivise work through cutting taxes for the low-paid rather than increasing benefits for low-income groups. These policies may well deliver on promoting absolute social mobility, stimulating economic growth and ensuring the next generation can live a better life than their parents.

By themselves, however, they are unlikely to deliver the relative social mobility Nick Clegg promises: your background will still continue to exert an unfair influence on what you’re able to do in life. To paraphrase the deputy prime minister: “Patterns of inequality will continue to be imprinted from one generation to the next.”

The Coalition Government’s focus on education — in particular the education of the poorest — is to its credit. But if it wants to encourage relative social mobility it is going to have to tackle an issue it prefers to skirt around: delivering a more equal society. There really is no alternative.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.