Tag Archives: social mobility and education


Damian Hinds, social mobility and some  key truths

Myths, delusions and truths about social mobility


There was a Westminster Hall debate  last week, led by Tory MP, Damian Hinds, on Social Mobility. Hinds is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility which has just produced an ‘Interim’  report on Social Mobility.

There is much nonsense talked about social mobility, generally, and evidence produced and cherry picked to   suit particular agendas, with  some of it of pretty dubious quality. Alan Milburn,who advises the government on social mobility, when given the opportunity by the Times recently,  to expound  on the subject, droned on about removing private schools charity status, (it’s a bit of a persistent  bee in his bonnet) as  if this was  a key lever to improve social mobility.  What a wasted opportunity! The think tank Civitas’ report ‘ Social Mobility Delusions’ helps rebalance the facts and arguments.  England is, apparently, more socially mobile than Germany, France and Italy, according to sociologist Peter Saunders, the report’s author and ‘Social mobility is the norm in Britain, not the exception, and it occurs in both directions across the entire range of the occupational class structure’. You may not believe this and think that it is counterintuitive nonsense, but the report encourages one to look a little more carefully at the objective facts and also challenges some of the research being published by the Sutton Trust, which has such an influence on the  current debate.  The Trust is the nearest thing we have to motherhood and apple pie  when it comes to matters related to educational disadvantage and social mobility  so there is no harm in putting their research into the spotlight.(It was Anthony Sampsons ‘Anatomy of Britain’  in the 1960s which first raised   issues about the privileged  public school elite running the country)

The All -party Groups Interim report seems to make quite a lot of sense. Usefully, Hinds reiterated in the  Westminster Hall debate the  seven basic truths they identified  about social mobility.

‘First, the point of greatest leverage is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, right at the start of life. That means primarily at home. Secondly, the cycle may be broken through education. Thirdly, the single most important controllable factor in education is the quality of teachers and teaching. Fourthly, what happens not just at school, but after the school bell rings—in the evenings and at weekends and in the holidays—is relevant. Fifthly, university is the most important swing factor of achievements later in life. Pre-18 attainment dictates whether someone gets there, so pre-18 attainment is key. Sixthly, people should not give up, because it is possible to get back on the ladder and to go up it. Later pathways to mobility are possible as long as the will and the support are there. Seventhly, personal resilience and emotional well-being are the missing link in the chain, and permeate those different levels and life stages.’



Note- Conor Ryan who was an adviser to David Blunkett  has just joined the Sutton Trust



What is the Government up to on this?


Both Coalition parties are heavily committed to improving social mobility. David Cameron has said that Social mobility is the main aim of this government’s social policy. Simon Hughes has been appointed access Czar to Higher Education. Alan Milburn is building on the work he undertook in the last government to help advance this agenda. Sir Peter Lampl has easy access to NO 10 . And the Sutton Trust, which he heads, continuously feeds in research to show that social mobility is , well,almost non- existent. Michael Gove rarely misses the opportunity to say his main priority is to improve the opportunities of the most disadvantaged pupils in schools, so they can get the right qualifications for the best universities and the job market.  This Government have set out an education reform programme in order to drive up attainment for children, regardless of their background, and to keep pace with the highest-performing systems in the world.  Some specific measures to improve social mobility are set out in the Government’s “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility”. These measures aim to ensure life chances are more equal at critical points such as the early years of development; school readiness at age five; GCSE attainment and the choice of options at 16. Most agree that evidence shows that investment in the early years of a child’s life makes a difference to their future attainment and can affect mobility.  The Government has extended the free entitlement to early education to 15 hours per week for all three and four-year-olds, and have committed to extend free early education to all disadvantaged two-year-olds by 2013. Funding for places for disadvantaged two-year-olds will rise from £64 million in the current financial year to £380 million by the end of the spending review period and will mean that around 140,000 two-year-olds will in the future benefit from free places.

Then there is the pupil premium. This aims to provide additional resources to schools to help raise the attainment of pupils from low income families. Total funding for the pupil premium is £625 million in 2011-12, £1.25 billion in 2012-13 and will rise to £2.5 billion a year by 2014-15. It is hoped that schools invest this money wisely.  The pupil premium sits alongside a range of reforms that will help to ensure that more pupils achieve higher standards. These include allowing schools greater freedoms and flexibility to use their budgets as they think best, introducing a more rigorous emphasis on phonics in the early years of primary education and reviewing the national curriculum and assessment arrangements. The Government also introduced a new £50 million pupil premium summer school programme which aims to provide two weeks of teaching and activities to help the most disadvantaged pupils make the transition from primary to secondary school. In so doing the Government rather compromised the idea of schools autonomy, suggesting perhaps that it doesn’t necessarily trust schools to use this money wisely.

The Government has also, recently, appeared to concede that disadvantaged pupils really do need access to   independent , face to face careers advice early,  to help them make the right choices about education, training and employment. It will ensure ,it says ,rather belatedly,  that statutory guidance  will ensure that schools are expected to give face to face professional advice to disadvantaged and disabled pupils.  But, then again, guidance is guidance and, well,   it is sometimes simply  ignored .




Milburn pitches in

But are Universities the right target?


Social mobility is important because it raises aspirations, creates better connections between and within communities (more important now perhaps than for a generation), and reinforces the value of education and skills.

Worryingly for governments, despite huge investment in widening access to education in the last decade or two, research suggests there has been no comparable increase in social mobility – quite the reverse.  Social mobility can be thought of in absolute and relative terms. The former refers to processes of adjustment in the income or occupational structure of the economy. The latter, sometimes called ‘social fluidity’, is associated with an individual’s opportunities for progression within the social hierarchy However, trends in social mobility are remarkably resistant to policy interventions. Those in higher social classes appear to have been able to take greater advantage of the opportunities created by policy interventions and more able to use a variety of additional social advantages to maintain their relative position.

The factors involved influencing Social Mobility are thought to be:

Social capital –A lack of positive role models, negative peer pressure, poverty of ambition and aspiration and risk aversion etc

Cultural capital – can also help middle-class families to confer social advantages on their children, increasing their potential to move upwards and protecting them from downwards movement in the social hierarchy.

Early years influences – are seen as key to influencing later life chances.  Convincing evidence shows that early experiences such as the quality of the home environment, family structure, pre-school care and relationships with caring adults produce a pattern of development in later life that is hard to  reverse even through schooling.

Education – appears to be one of the most important factors influencing social mobility. However, there is considerable evidence that the introduction and expansion of universal education systems in the UK and Western Europe have , not led to increasing levels of relative social mobility.

• Employment and labour market experiences – substantial levels of worklessness and long-term economic inactivity have emerged in some areas and/or among specific population groups.  Second, research has identified the emergence of a prominent ‘low-pay – nopay’ cycle for some groups.

Health and wellbeing – ill-health results from social and environmental factors identified with lower socio-economic status, and ill-health and caring responsibilities can lead to declining socio-economic status.

Area-based influences – localised environmental problems appear to combine with socio-economic disadvantage to produce negative area-based influences on potential for social mobility. For example, inequalities in access to private transport combined with poorer quality provision in some important public services in deprived areas may mean that lower socio-economic classes are unable to exercise effective choices over access to these services.

Alan Milburn the access Czar has recently, like many others before, said that universities should do more to encourage greater access to Higher Education, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. There is always a simple solution to addressing a complex problem that is wrong.  We have seen how many factors actually influence social mobility -education is but one- important though it may be.  A report for the  Department of Work and  Pensions (2007) ‘Factors influencing Social Policy’ said that:  ‘while educational attainment remains a strong predictor of future social position, there are strong influences on educational attainment  which are outside the scope of formal educational provision. For instance, patterns of development are often set prior to starting formal education, suggesting that early experiences are central to understanding both educational attainment and social mobility. However, many of these early years influences are outside what is normally thought to be the scope of public policy and are heavily associated  with family dynamics, parenting and home environment.’

It does seem that social mobility  may be  very resistant to  centrally driven  interventions because of the number of factors at play and the multi-faceted  dynamics underpinning  social mobility. But most experts on social mobility believe that the earlier you address the issue, in education,  the more likely you are to achieve the outcomes you want. Many critics believe that pressuring universities to take more with  lower grades  is not the right answer. Trying to force social mobility at such a late stage is actually counter-productive. True, a pupil at  a  poor school who achieves an ABB at A level probably deserves a place on a course much more than a privately educated pupil ,going for the same course with equivalent or slightly better grades, although quite where you draw the line is less clear But, A level Grades  are  set to establish  to what  degree pupils have acquired  the knowledge base, information processing, analytical  and  communication skills required  to succeed at University . There is a big difference in this respect between an A* student and one securing a B Grade. Good GCSEs are also important indicators for admissions tutors. They want to see breadth and consistency across subject areas.  Yet a lot of teachers’ work in state schools is focused on getting  pupils  up to a C grade at GCSE, because that’s how league tables work. Schools are given government incentives to get a certain number of students above a C grade. But there’s no incentive to help them get from a C to an A*, whereas at fee-paying schools students are pushed to go for those top marks and they are the ones who get into the top universities.’ Proper support for our most able pupils in schools remains in short supply, although these are precisely the pupils who have the most potential to be socially mobile. Pupils also are not getting the kind of good,  face to face professional advice and guidance and mentoring they need to raise their aspirations and expectations-so crucial for social mobility. Making the right choices at the key decision points in a young person’s education and career can open or close a lifetime of opportunities.

The fact is Governments  have not  had a joined up policy to aid mobility, and it is not, in any   case, a policy area that easily lends itself to top down interventions.   There is no reason why this government will be any more able to ease social mobility than any other to my mind particularly given their obsession with Oxbridge.