Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Social mobility: where next?

Liz Kendall shares her thoughts in a speech to last night’s De Montfort Distinguished Lecture Series on social mobility in Britain and how to ensure it can be boosted in difficult times.

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I am delighted and deeply honoured to be speaking in De Montfort’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

I was elected as the MP for Leicester West less than 9 months ago, and became a member of Labour’s front bench health team last October.

So I must admit that looking through the list of your far more eminent and experienced speakers made me a little apprehensive about this evening.

But I’m very grateful to be given the chance to talk to you tonight about an issue that is close to my heart – indeed it’s the reason I came into politics.

The issue is social mobility.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility can be a difficult concept to pin down but is essentially the degree to which people’s social status changes within – or more usually between – the generations.

Social mobility is seen by many as the degree to which equality of life opportunities exist within any given society.

In other words, it shows the extent to which parents influence the success of their children in later life, or conversely how much an individual can succeed by virtue of their own talent, motivation, hard work – or indeed luck.

Why does it matter?

Increasing social mobility is a central goal of progressive politics.

It matters firstly, for ethical reasons. People should be able to determine their own future, rather than have their life story written according to the circumstances of their birth.

Secondly, it matters to our economy, which will be less efficient and productive if individuals can’t use their talents and abilities to the full.

And social mobility matters to wider society: we all suffer if individuals cannot fulfil their potential and contribute fully to the life of their families, communities and country.

As Director of the Maternity Alliance – a charity which campaigned for pregnant women, new parents and babies under one – I saw at first hand how inequality shapes children’s chances before their lives have barely begun.

Babies from poor families are more likely to be born at a low birth weight and to die before they are one. They are more likely to suffer from illnesses during childhood and adult life. And they are less likely to do well at school, go on to university or get a job.

Birth, not worth, still defines the lives of too many people in this country – and that’s what I came into politics to change.

International comparisons

The UK has very low rates of social mobility – whether that’s measured by educational attainment, social class or income – whereas Northern Europe, particularly the Nordic countries, are far more mobile.

For example, a study of income mobility put the UK and US at the bottom of a table of 11 developed countries.

To put this into perspective, social mobility for those born in the 1960s and 1970s in the UK is nearly half that in Canada or Denmark. Another way of looking at this is that a grandparent in the UK has the same impact on the outcomes of their grandchild as a parent does in Denmark on their own children. 


The reasons for these differences are complicated and difficult to precisely determine. However three general points can be drawn from the international evidence.

First, that countries with less income inequality – like Norway – are generally more socially mobile than countries with high levels of income inequality, like the US and UK.

Second, it is not just levels of poverty that seem to affect social mobility, but how much inequality there is at the top end too.

And third, countries that invest more in education tend to be more socially mobile.

Inequalities in income and opportunity

Debates about the relationship between inequalities in income and opportunity, and their relative importance, have been the subject of long and heated political debate.

Those on the Left have often emphasised the need to reduce income inequalities over and above tackling inequalities of power or opportunity – as if the former were the ultimate goal.

And those on the Right tend to claim that opportunity matters more than any particular level of income equality – as if the two are entirely unrelated.

The truth is inequalities in opportunity and income are inextricably linked.

This point has been powerfully articulated by the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

Sen rightly argues that you can increase people’s income without enhancing their power or ability to choose the kind of life they want to lead.

Redistributing income and resources matters, but so does what people are able to do with these resources – their ‘capabilities’, which Sen believes include basic issues like literacy and nutrition, as well as the ability “to participate in the social life of the community”. These capabilities depend on both the social and economic context within which people live.

In other words, people’s ability to choose the life they want to lead is shaped by their educational and social opportunities, as well as their economic circumstances: by the chances people have to learn and participate in society, as well as by what they earn and own.

So if we are genuinely concerned about social mobility we must be concerned about reducing inequalities in social and educational opportunities and reducing inequalities in income and wealth.

Developing a convincing and coherent strategy about these issues – which chimes with and has the support of the public – is one of the key challenges facing progressive politics in the years ahead.

Changes in mobility in the UK

Before I go on to talk about the future, how has social mobility changed in Britain’s recent past?

During the last Parliament, the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance published research which found that children born to poor families in Britain are less likely to break free from their backgrounds and fulfil their potential than in the past.

Subsequent media headlines declared that “Social mobility declined under Labour” – a claim the current Government has repeated many times.

However, the LSE’s research was based on a comparison of the adult earnings of children born in 1958 with those of children born in 1970.

I’ll come on to Labour’s record in a moment, but it is wrong to use this evidence to blame the last Government for a decline in social mobility amongst people who were 27 years old when we were elected.

For children born in the late 1970s and early 1980s the picture on social mobility is more mixed. Research from Bristol University, for example, suggests the gap between rich and poor children who stayed on in education at age 16 narrowed during this period, but the gap between those going to university widened.

What all this research tells us is that the relationship between educational attainment and family income is at the heart of Britain’s low mobility culture, especially for access to higher education. 

This point is critical in thinking about how to increase social mobility in future.

Poverty and inequality

We may not have always trumpeted this point, but Labour consistently redistributed income towards the poor and away from the very rich. 

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies Labour’s overall tax and benefit reforms increased the incomes of the very poorest by £1,300 a year – that’s over 12% – and reduced those at the top by £4,200 a year, or 5.5%.

These reforms were central to Labour’s drive to reduce child poverty. Although we were still some distance from achieving our goal of halving child poverty by 2010, significant improvements were made. The number of children living in poverty was reduced from 3.4m in 1997 to 2.8m in 2009.  

In terms of income inequality, last year’s National Equality Panel report by Professor John Hills found that earnings inequality narrowed a little over the most recent decade and income inequality stabilised. 


However, the dramatic growth in inequality during the late 1970s and early 1990s was not reversed – indeed evidence from the IFS suggests it rose overall between 1997 and 2008. 


Underlying inequality in Britain – that is the disparity in pre-tax incomes – has increased throughout the last 30 years.


The reasons for this are complex. An over reliance on the City and financial services to drive growth has tended to benefit jobs and incomes in London and the South East at the expense of regions like the Midlands and North.  Technological change, particularly the revolution in IT, has led to many low paid service sector jobs being replaced. And our increasingly global economy has seen manufacturing jobs transferred overseas.


Cities like Leicester have been at the sharp end of these changes. Large numbers of low to medium skill jobs have been lost, including from the textile industry.


This has had a profound effect on levels of poverty and unemployment in our city, and on the aspirations of many families as traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared.


Of course, Britain isn’t the only country to have experienced these changes.  Income inequality has increased in three quarters of all OECD countries, with Germany seeing the fastest growth over the last decade.


Labour’s tax and benefit changes helped to mitigate the growth in underlying inequality in this country, whereas the former Conservative Government’s policies exacerbated it.


But we didn’t do enough to rebalance our economy and broaden our industrial base, so that well-paid jobs and opportunities are available in traditionally low skill, low pay areas, like the one I represent.


The very real concern now is that the current Government’s economic policy could take Britain back to levels of inequality last seen in the 1980s.


Removing the entire deficit within 5 years will result in 400,000 public sector job losses, according to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. This will have a huge impact on cities like Leicester, where a third of our jobs are now in the public sector.


The total number of job losses could be higher still – over a million according to some predictions – depending on the knock-on effect in the private sector.


The number of workless households in my constituency is already unacceptably high, and I support the Government’s aim of strengthening work incentives and simplifying the benefits system. 


But, as the former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Douglas Alexander has argued, welfare to work requires there to be work.


The Government has so far failed to produce a credible growth strategy, let alone one that will rebalance the economy and broaden our industrial base.

Tax and benefit changes that are clearly regressive are also being introduced. The IFS has shown that Government changes announced in the Budget and Spending Review will hit the poorest 10% hardest. The richest 10% end up paying more overall – but only because of the tax rises Labour put in place.

Families with children will be the biggest losers from these changes. This could have serious consequences for social mobility, since we know family income during childhood has a profound effect on how well children do during the early years, at school and beyond.

Educational opportunities

Labour is often accused of neglecting the ‘non-financial’ aspects of poverty.

But I know from my own constituency that Labour made huge strides in increasing educational opportunities for the poorest children and in narrowing the achievement gap.

Sure Start Children’s Centres – which bring together early years services like childcare, health and family support – are making a real difference to the lives of some of the poorest families with young children.

School standards are being transformed. In Leicester, the number of students getting 5 or more A to C grade GCSE’s, including maths and English, has risen by 15% over the past 4 years – twice as fast as the national average.

Improvements in the most disadvantaged areas of the city have been particularly striking.  Fullhurst Community College in Braunstone achieved 38% of pupils with 5 good GCSEs including maths and English, up a staggering 19% from the previous year’s.

Nationally, the proportion of children on Free School Meals who stay on in full time education at age 16 has increased from 60% in 2005 to 70% in 2009. And the number of children on FSMs who go to university is increasing at 18% – twice the rate of those children not on FSMs.

At this point, I want to pay tribute to the hard work and commitment of De Montfort University in improving access for children from the most deprived backgrounds.

The latest figures show over 9% of students from your 2007/8 intake were on FSMs when they were younger – higher than the national average and far greater than many other universities. This is something De Montfort should be very proud of.

Challenges for the future

But do these improvements mean we should be satisfied with the status quo?

The answer is an unequivocal no.

Whilst Labour got us into the foothills of improving life chances, there is still a mountain to climb before children from the most deprived backgrounds can fulfil their potential.

Poor children are still half as likely to get five good GCSEs as children from better off families.  They are less likely to stay on in education when they’re 16 or to go to university. And they less likely to get a job, particularly in well-paid professions like medicine and the law.

This is unacceptable.

Britain urgently needs a strategy to equalise opportunities at every stage of the education system.

Recent debates about social mobility have dominated by the issue of higher education. Yet the earlier stages of a child’s life are absolutely critical to ensuring young people are in a position to have genuine choices about what they do when they’re older – whether that’s going to university or getting a good job.

I want to spend the rest of my speech looking at two of the key challenges we must address if we’re going to break the link between family income and achievement that has blighted Britain for too long.

First, the challenge of ensuring early years services do more to help the most disadvantaged children and families – through a more intense focus on child development and better engaging parents.


And second, making even faster progress in improving school standards in deprived areas – focusing specifically on how the curriculum can drive aspiration, achievement and success.


Early years services


Before I ran the Maternity Alliance, I was a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research. One of the projects I led was called “An Equal Start.” This looked at how pregnancy and the first 12 months of a child’s life can shape their later life chances.


There’s now a huge amount of evidence that stark inequalities emerge when children are very young – as early as 22 months, according to work by Kathy Sylva at Oxford.  By the time they get to school, children from the poorest fifth of families are almost a year behind children from middle-income families in vocabulary tests. 


Around half the gap in school readiness between poorer and better off children is due to parenting style and the home environment.  For example, a child from a professional class home hears three times as many words as a child from the most disadvantaged home.


This in turn affects language development, which is a strong predictor of how well children do in later life. The amount parents read to their children and the number of books at home makes a huge difference here.


The quality of the relationship between parents and their babies also shapes children’s social and emotional development – their self-esteem, self-discipline and control, and their ability to build relationships with others. 


These personal and communication skills can affect how well children do at school and in the world of work, particularly in today’s service-driven economy.

Graham Allen’s report on early intervention, which was published yesterday, rightly says that reducing inequalities during children’s early years must be a higher priority in future.

The key challenge is for services to better engage with disadvantaged parents. Midwives, health visitors and other nurses can help families prepare for parenthood and improve their parenting skills. The voluntary sector also has a wealth of experience which early years services need to more deeply draw on.

And initiatives like the Peers Early Education Partnership have shown that ‘peer to peer’ programmes – where parents learn from one another – can make a real difference too.

That’s one reason why Sure Start must remain a universal service in future.  Children from low-income families can benefit from interactions and relationships with children from better off families. So doing even more to reach disadvantaged parents must not lead to Sure Start becoming a service for poor families alone.

Funding for early years services must also be maintained – particularly if we’re going to improve the quality of the early years workforce. 

Yet the Government’s new ‘early intervention grant’, which includes funding for Sure Start, will be almost 11% lower next year than the current funding for the various different programmes, and 7.5% lower in 2012.

This is incredibly short sighted when we know how important children’s early years are in determining later life chances – and when international evidence shows investment in early years services saves us all money in the long run.

School curriculum

The second challenge I want to look at is the role the curriculum plays in improving achievement for the most disadvantaged children. This issue has received a lot of coverage lately, and been in the news again today.

Of course, we need to remember that children’s social and economic circumstances are the most important factors influencing their achievement at school.

Research suggests around 15% of the incidence of low educational achievement is down to school quality alone.  The financial resources schools have matters particularly for low achieving students.  So too does the ethos and leadership within schools, and the quality and effectiveness of teaching.

The best Heads and teachers motivate and inspire every child to achieve their full potential, and being able to tailor the curriculum around children’s individual needs is crucial to achieving this goal.

In 2004, the Tomlinson report called for major changes in the curriculum for 14 – 19 year olds. Its aim was to ensure all young people leave school or college at 18 with a broad and balanced range of achievements that prepare them for later life. These include basic skills like maths, literacy and ICT, knowledge about individual subjects, and wider skills like critical thinking and citizenship.

At this point I feel I must say something about Michael Gove’s comment on the national curriculum on Radio 4 this morning: “I just think there should be facts.” As a self-professed lover of history, Mr Gove should understand – in the words of E. H. Carr – that a fact is like a sack: it doesn’t stand up unless you put something in it. True knowledge is about more than ‘facts’ alone.

The Tomlinson report may not have had all the answers. But it made a compelling argument that a unified system of academic and vocational study between the ages of 14 and 19 is critical to ensuring all children fulfill their talents. 


This is partly because separating academic and vocational education tends to devalue the latter, but also because children’s talents and abilities often develop at different ages.


Labour did introduce some changes following Tomlinson, like the new Diplomas. Alongside the expansion of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications this increased the choices and chances for many young people. 


But we didn’t seize the opportunity to implement more fundamental reforms of the curriculum to drive aspiration and achievement and equip all our young people for the future.  This is something Labour must address as we review our policies in the months ahead.


However, the immediate concern of many of the teachers and Heads I’ve spoken to in my constituency is that the current Government’s proposals could take us in the wrong direction.


They tell me proposals set out in the Schools White Paper, and plans to establish University Technical Colleges, could further entrench the divide between academic and vocational qualifications, not reduce it. 

And far from liberating Heads and teachers to shape their school’s ethos and curriculum around children’s individual needs, this freedom will be curtailed.

All schools are now being assessed on the number of children gaining the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate’. In reality this is nothing like a Baccalaureate but rather A-C grade GCSEs in English, Maths, science, a modern foreign language and a humanity, defined solely as geography or history.

Schools must do more to challenge and stretch every pupil to achieve their full academic potential.

But making the main measure by which schools are judged focus entirely on academic subjects could reduce the motivation and self-esteem of many students from the most challenging backgrounds, and therefore their eventual attainment and achievement.  And it will incentivise schools to focus on children who are more likely to want or be able to study academic subjects at GCSE.

The fear is that vocational courses will be devalued. These courses have helped boost achievement amongst students in my constituency – not because they are easier, but because they offer young people a wider choice of learning experiences that allows them to be successful in different ways.

The White Paper virtually ignores subjects like ICT, Technology, Art, Dance, Drama and PE.

Yet these subjects are vital in showing many students that they can succeed, and act as a ‘hook’ to increase achievement in more traditional academic subjects too.

It is also a mistake to abolish modular GCSEs. These can be hugely motivating for many students who may have an inbuilt ‘fatalism’ about their abilities and chances to succeed. With support and encouragement from teachers, modular GCSEs show children – step by step – that they can aspire and achieve.


Transforming social mobility is one of the key challenges facing this country. 

Despite very real improvements over the last decade, too many children in Britain are still held back by the circumstances of their birth – by where they’re born, not their potential to achieve.

This harms not only their own life chances and choices, but our wider economy and social fabric – as people’s skills, talents, abilities and dreams are held back, neglected or lost.

But we live in extremely challenging economic times.  Politicians who are committed to improving social mobility need to think seriously about where our future priorities lie.

There is now clear and overwhelming evidence that the very earliest years of a child’s life are crucial to shaping their later opportunities. 

Welfare to work programmes, tax credits and benefits have an important role to play in reducing income inequalities during children’s early years. But on their own, they won’t be sufficient for transforming life chances.

Experience from other countries shows that investing in high quality early services, which have an intense focus on child development and which successfully engage disadvantaged parents, can transform opportunities and save money in the long run – which is why I believe they should take centre stage in the years ahead.

We must also look again at the school curriculum for 14 to 19 year olds, to ensure it motivates and drives every child to achieve their full potential. There are very real risks that the current Government could take us in the wrong direction here.

There are many other issues I could have talked about this evening.

The importance of adult education in tackling low educational achievement amongst parents, which is one of the main ways social exclusion is passed from one generation to another.

Improving education and careers guidance, so children get informed and impartial advice on the full range of options available.

The absolutely crucial role Further Education plays in increasing opportunities for young people, and why abolishing the Educational Maintenance Allowance threatens to reduce the number of children who stay on in education post 16.

And the further steps universities must take to open their doors to children from deprived backgrounds – and why trebling tuition costs will deter students from non-privileged backgrounds.

I hope to return to these topics at a later date.

But for now, I look forward to hearing your comments, views and questions.

Thank you.

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Liz Kendall MP

is former shadow minister for care and older people


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