You can see what they’re trying to do. In the midst of the most savage cuts to public spending in several generations, the UK Coalition Government wants to have a positive, socially conscious message alongside all the bad news. And that positive message is social mobility. Nick Clegg is the visible face of this rhetoric, in his role as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the junior coalition partners. In his words in the foreword to this week’s Social Mobility Strategy, “tackling the financial deficit is the Coalition’s most immediate task. But tackling the opportunity deficit – creating an open, socially mobile society – is our guiding purpose.”
It’s a good line. The trouble, however, is that it’s much easier to talk about ‘tackling the opportunity deficit’ than it is to achieve any progress. The Strategy is not all bad – but the chances of it making a real difference to mobility in Britain are slender indeed.
The good bits
The Strategy starts off in exactly the right place. They eschew a short-term approach, saying they want a ‘long-term view, focusing on evidence-based policies’ – hard to argue with that. In previous posts I’ve written about the need to look at how inequality accumulates over the lifecycle, and this is exactly what they do:
“Lives are not determined by the age of five, 15 or 30. We know that to make the most of our interventions in the early years, we need to follow through in later life. There should be help and support at every stage to narrow the gaps and provide second chances. That is why our strategy is based on a life cycle framework.”
It starts to go wrong in the following lines however. They say:
“Our goal is to make life chances more equal at the critical points for social mobility such as: the early years of development; school readiness at age five; GCSE attainment; the choice of options at 16; gaining a place at university or on an Apprenticeship; and getting into and on in the labour market. These are the crucial moments, where we can make the most difference” (emphasis added)
The trouble with talking about critical points is that this suggests that social mobility is all about people’s choices to do with work and education – and not the structural factors that hold them back, a point I’ll come back to. Still, a strategy that made a real difference at these points would be something to be welcomed.
Frequent readers of official Government strategy documents on disadvantage – pity you – will have spotted a pattern in how these strategies work. You diagnose a problem clearly, based on evidence. You talk about the need for evidence-based policy, for long-term action, that this is ‘not just a task for government’ but for ‘our whole society’. (You might even call for a ‘national conversation’ as a solution, which thankfully they don’t do here). And then you present a long list of policies, some of which you’re already doing, alongside others that attract headlines at low cost. You talk about processes of delivery and ‘robust mechanisms’, together with a plethora of indicators.
But there is no chance at all that the policy changes you suggest will get anywhere close to the ambitious targets.
This perfectly encapsulates the Social Mobility Strategy. We can see this if we go through the main claims life-stage by life-stage:
- In the early years, they’re pledging new provision for disadvantaged 2-year-olds, expanding ‘family nurse partnerships’, and ‘set out plans to support a culture where the key aspects of good parenting are widely understood’. But they make no mention of the cuts to the Surestart childrens’ centres – they say these are being maintained, but this is through various tricks of accounting; in practice, many will close – or the cuts in childcare allowances for low-income families. They are also ‘moving away from a narrow focus on income measures’, which is a nicely euphemistic way of alluding to the cuts in various benefit, which is likely to raise child poverty levels by 100-200k by 2012-13 – hardly going to help the kids of disadvantaged adults.
- In the school years, the major policy is the ‘pupil premium’ – £2.5bn of education spending targeted on the most disadvantaged kids. This had already been announced so isn’t new, and the money seems to be coming from within the education budget rather than being ‘new money’. But £2.5bn within the preschool/primary/secondary education budget of just over £20bn isn’t nothing. Less useful however is the ‘Education and Employers Taskforce’, aiming to get 100,000 people going into schools to ‘raise aspirations’. Good newspaper copy, negligible effect.
- In what they call the ‘transition years’, they claim to be helping improve mobility among 16-19 year olds by raising the school leaving age, increasing funding for disadvantaged learners, and creating more apprenticeships. I don’t know the details, but this all seems highly dubious to me. The school leaving age was raised by Labour, for a start. They gloss over the cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowances – targeted payments to encourage disadvantaged 16 year olds to stay at school. And to claim that raising university fees to a maximum of £9,000 will help mobility is laughable; they claim that those charging over £6k will ‘will have to attract more students from less affluent backgrounds’, but the enforcement mechanisms are almost non-existent, and nearly all universities seem set to charge the maximum fees.
- Finally, they talk about adulthood. The sum total of action here seems to be the reforms to the benefit system (more of which in another post, but basically it involves cuts to benefits and more ‘activation’ policies), and a ‘fair, transparent’ paid internship scheme in the Civil Service.
They also announced a new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It’s difficult to know why this is necessary having already persuaded the ex-Labour Minister Alan Milburn to be the ‘Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility’ – apparently Milburn will do this for a short while (perhaps until his first report in September?) until the Commission starts.
The laughable state of public debate
The Strategy provides much to chew on, and in an ideal world the main reaction would have been one of informed criticism. Instead, the press blew up in mock outrage about the ‘hypocrisy’ of Nick Clegg in talking about fair interships, when he had benefitted from family connections himself. (The Lib Dems – like other parties – had also been exploiting unpaid interns who had other means of financial support for years, a situation I know about from personal experience).
This is all ludicrous – it’s the same as saying that anyone who benefits from an unequal society can’t fight against it. Which given that the people in power will (by definition) have succeeded in an unequal world, is tantamount to saying that any action by the powerful is hypocrisy.
The launch of a Social Mobility Strategy by a Government of any stripe should be cause for celebration – a recognition of the political importance of this, and at least some vague promises that can be used to later hold politicians to account. Yet my overall feeling is one of despair at the pattern that we’re trapped into. All of this talk of aspiration, plus attention-grabbing headlines on internship policies (which are welcome in themselves), but no recognition of the structural constraints to social mobility – including the level of inequality itself. This is a very long way indeed from the kind of theoretically-informed conception of lifecourse inequality that we’d need to really tackle mobility, and is just another a sign of how divorced the academic and political debates can be…