Social mobility after Milburn

7 Dec 17

The Sutton Trust’s Conor Ryan considers the fallout from the resignations at the Social Mobility Commission and suggests where the policy agenda could go next.

Anyone who thought Alan Milburn would go quietly underestimated the doughty champion of social mobility who first gained the ‘tsar’ role through his political nemesis Gordon Brown.

Milburn brought his characteristic energy to publicising the challenge under Brown, and was appointed to head the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2012 by the coalition. Last weekend he showed the same energy and determination in the manner of his going.

But despite the fanfare of last week’s State of the Nation report – where the commission again adapted a model developed by the Sutton Trust in our pioneering Mobility Map – the truth is that the commission has faced a gradual emasculation since the 2015 election.

It first lost its child poverty role. Then the Scots bailed out. Commissioners who left weren’t replaced so that by last weekend, there were only four left to resign. And then, as Fraser Nelson noted at The Spectator, Milburn was effectively sidelined.

His term came to an end in the summer and he wasn’t reappointed but three was no agreement on who should replace him. With characteristic chutzpah, Milburn delivered his final State of the Nation and persuaded his deputy Gillian Shephard and the other remaining commissioners to resign with great fanfare through the Sunday papers.

Milburn’s departure raises critical questions about the future of social mobility policy under the current government

Clearly Downing Street was caught off guard by the weekend’s events. But that didn’t stop some of its supporters getting their revenge across three pages of Monday’s Daily Mail, ridiculing the need for social mobility and attacking the former tsar personally.

However, whatever the process issues that preceded Milburn’s departure, it still raises critical questions about the future of social mobility policy under the current government.

As education secretary, Justine Greening is an undoubted true believer in the power of social mobility.

Like an increasing number of her colleagues she comes from a modest comprehensive educated background and regularly reminds audiences of how the opportunities that are essential to social mobility helped her to succeed – as well as the inherent challenges in the process.

We were also eagerly awaiting a social mobility plan from her department that will surely have been given extra scrutiny by No 10 after the weekend’s maelstrom.

Theresa May chose social mobility as her signature domestic issue in her first statement as prime minister outside No. 10 and she gave it policy flesh in her first speech on the issue.

Unfortunately, the only policy for which the speech will be remembered was an attempt to extend grammar schools – a policy backed by very limited evidence that it could effect significant change.

The speech also promised fewer restrictions on faith schools, threatened sanctions on private schools if they didn’t offer more help to state schools or poorer pupils, and sought to get more universities involved in the day to day running of schools.

This year’s general election – after which May no longer commanded a Commons majority – put paid to much of that agenda. Voluntary independent state school partnerships and a willingness by grammar schools more actively to recruit disadvantaged pupils may be a small but welcome legacy. But the conclusion many observers made after the weekend is that the all-consuming demands of Brexit have made it impossible to make serious progress on social mobility.

That is not entirely fair. Greening’s Opportunity Areas are a serious attempt to bring coordinated action to the areas identified by the Social Mobility Commission as having particularly poor social mobility, including places beyond the traditional inner city focus of such programmes.

There have of course been many such place-based initiatives in the past – education action zones, Excellence in Cities, London Challenge (and other less successful challenge programmes) – and only the London Challenge delivered (or, some academics would say, coincided with) significant improvement.

The pupil premium remains an important support for schools working with disadvantaged pupils and the Education Endowment Foundation continues to test evidence on an endowment originally provided by Michael Gove. There have also been moves in the cabinet office to encourage firms to do more for social mobility.

The weekend’s events should be seen an opportunity... a chance to revitalise the Social Mobility Commission and get it working effectively

However, what is missing – as Milburn highlighted at the weekend – is a coherent approach across government. Theresa May rightly saw lack of opportunity as the cri de coeur of many who supported Brexit – and the mobility maps link closely to their votes. That insight needs to be reaffirmed even as the negotiations continue with Brussels.

The weekend’s events should therefore be seen an opportunity. It is a chance to revitalise the Social Mobility Commission and get it working effectively with those – like the Sutton Trust – already championing this cause through programmes and research.

But it is also the chance to have a truly radical social mobility plan that takes on vested interests to prioritise policies that can make a real difference. It remains to be seen whether the much anticipated action plan from the DfE fits the bill.

Properly resourced nursery education for disadvantaged children (not an add on to a childcare strategy). The best teachers in schools where poorer pupils go. Fair admissions to all secondary schools.

Effective use of the pupil premium, with proper support for disadvantaged pupils including high attainers and support for enrichment and activities that improve life skills. Fairer access to university with much better outreach and contextual admissions.

A choice of good apprenticeships, especially at advanced and higher level for young people. And a fairer labour market, including the end to unpaid internships.

That’s the sort of radical but practical programme that could start to shift the dial on social mobility. But it requires real passion and commitment to the issue from the whole government and wider society to make it happen.

This article was first published on the Sutton Trust blog.

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