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Why solving social mobility is a vital political move

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The road ahead for social mobility is decidedly rocky. The global economy is changing rapidly, transforming the nature of work. Geographical divisions are widening. Public sector spending is being squeezed, and the booming housing market has reinforced social divides. Today, many young people from low and middle income families will be worse off than their parents.

Improving Britain’s poor record on this issue is vital if the social divides exposed by the European referendum are to be healed. Ensuring that all children are able to achieve to the best of their potential, regardless of their family background, is at the heart of this challenge. The UK needs a plan to improve the current situation in which levels of social mobility are far lower than in many other countries, and have been declining over time.

So what can the government do about it? One clear message at a recent conference organised by the Social Mobility Commission and the University of Bath was that their needs to be much more clarity about what the precise goals of promoting social mobility are.

Today in the UK those that make it to the top of many professions are drawn disproportionately from private schools. And as education secretary Justine Greening said at the event, low ability children from high income backgrounds are 35% more likely to become higher earners than their high ability, but poor, peers.

Greening on social mobility. University of Bath

But while such examples expose the unfairness in society, it is not only the outcomes of the most able children that should be of concern. Greening emphasised the need to ensure that all children, whatever their ability or background, can achieve to the best of their potential. As professor of social policy Brian Nolan argued, improving the living standards of the bottom 40% of households is central to addressing social mobility.

Education is also critical. Early years provision has been shown to reap long-term dividends, but there is also a need to intervene throughout childhood and into early adulthood in order to ensure that gains achieved early on are maintained.

Transition points are key. Today, even where take up of early education is high, many children are not arriving at reception class “school ready”. And even when children are achieving good GCSEs, they are not always transitioning to good jobs. Ensuring that gains that are achieved early on are not lost will be key to ensuring the success of strategies to promote mobility.

But these policies are unlikely to be enough. Recent studies have emphasised the importance of location to children’s life chances. In the US, poor children who move to more advantaged areas have markedly better outcomes as adults. The UK, too, has social mobility “hot” (and “cold”) spots, although we have yet to understand what it is about place that matters most.

Moving on

Today young people are moving between jobs and regions less frequently than in the past. What the best response to regional differences in opportunities should be is also unclear. Should people be encouraged to move from place to place more, or should (and can) policy encourage jobs and businesses to move to the areas where people need them?

Halting and reversing the downward trend in social mobility needs new ways of thinking. Education, while vitally important, is not enough. The performance of the labour market and the housing market are also critical to the future of social mobility. Throughout the 2000s, welfare-to-work policies were promoted on the assumption that higher rates of employment would reduce poverty.

Yet while many more people are working, being in work is no longer enough to avoid poverty. Today most of those that are poor are also working. Reducing poverty requires a new focus on careers, not just jobs, yet the labour market is moving in the opposite direction. Low skilled workers’ jobs are increasingly casualised, while employers invest in training for high, but not low, skill workers.

Tackling the downward spiral of declining social mobility looks set to become increasingly challenging. Yet, failing to do so risks reducing social cohesion. New research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), shows that where people perceive opportunities for social mobility to be poor, they are much more likely to vote for populist policies.

Improving social mobility is therefore not just an ethical imperative. It is increasingly becoming a political necessity.

The ConversationThis seminar series was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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