Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Social mobility in an age of austerity

Alan Milburn’s speech delivered at the Onwards and Upwards event tonight:

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Speech to Progress and Helena Kennedy Foundation, House of Commons, 25 January 2011

Social mobility has become the new holy grail of public policy. Intractable levels of social inequality and, until recently at least, a flat lining in social mobility have compelled parties from across the political spectrum to pin their colours to the meritocratic mast. It is a development I regard as most welcome. The goal of an open mobile society where all have a fair chance to progress is something that has motivated me all my adult life.

I am proud to have served in a Labour government that made good progress towards that goal. I have always believed, however, that our country should be continually striving to create more opportunities for each and every person to go as far as their talents can take them. That is why when Gordon Brown asked me to make recommendations to his government on how we could make a career in the professions more accessible I jumped at the chance. And it is why when the new Government asked me to perform this new role I agreed to take it on. Sad though I am that Labour lost the last election, Britain cannot afford to put on hold efforts to create more opportunities in our society.

My role involves assessing – candidly and independently – whether what the Government actually does, as distinct from what it says, is helping or hindering the prospect of Britain becoming a more mobile society. I will produce an annual report to Parliament on what I have found. In the process I will assess too the policy and practice of businesses, universities and other institutions that can make such an important contribution to improving and equalising life chances.

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I grew up on a council estate and I ended up in the Cabinet. Like millions of others I benefited from the post-war Labour government’s towering achievements: full employment, universal education, a new welfare state. In the decades since birth not worth has become more and more a determinant of life chances in our country. That matters. It matters to me. More importantly it matters to the lives of this and future generations of young people. If social mobility stalls then social disadvantage becomes entrenched. I do not want to live in a country where if you are born poor you die poor. Social immobility erodes the very foundations of a decent society. When people feel the aspirations they have for their families and communities are unfairly thwarted then social responsibility and individual endeavour are undermined. Poverty of aspiration then kicks in; social resentment builds up. If Britain is to avoid being a country where birth determines fate we have to do much more to break the link between demography and destiny.
The last Labour government made much progress towards that goal, through policies like the minimum wage and the primacy accorded to education. The truth, however, is that the glass ceiling has been raised but it has not yet been broken. The gender pay gap narrowed but the
top jobs still go to men not women. The long running decline in social mobility was halted but it has not reversed. The education attainment gap between rich and poor narrowed but, as Leon Feinstein’s work demonstrates so graphically, low ability children from wealthy families still overtake high ability children from poor families during primary school. And with 3 in 4 judges and 1 in 2 senior civil servants coming from a private school background the evidence suggests the UK’s professions have actually become more not less socially exclusive over time. Tomorrow’s professional is today growing up in a family richer than seven in ten of all families in the UK.

And here lies a key point. A society where opportunities are frozen rather than fluid hurts more than those at the very bottom end. It hurts the people President Clinton once famously called the ‘forgotten middle class’. If that growth in social exclusivity is not checked it will be more and more middle class kids, not just working class ones, who will miss out. You can see that already with internships. They tend to go to the few who have the right connections not the many who have talent. Yes we need to beat poverty, but social progress – if it is to be for the many not the few in our society – also has to be based on unleashing aspiration.

Getting British society moving again will not be easy. Many of the determinants of life chances – individual temperament, family life, social attitudes – are beyond the reach of government. And where government could make a difference it will only stand a chance of doing so if it is clear about which problem it is trying to fix and then applying the right remedies. My experience in government of making change is that clarity and consistency are the foundation stones on which progress is built.

For all of our good intentions – and many ground-breaking initiatives – Labour in government did not have sufficient of either. At some points the priority was social mobility, at others the eradication of poverty. Tony Blair spoke to aspiration, Gordon Brown spoke of equality. Of course we were always on the fairness terrain. But we failed to accurately define what we were trying to achieve – in part because we seemed to be pursuing two notions simultaneously and sometimes independently: one was equality of opportunity, the other equality of outcome. They are very different ideas and in my view both are flawed, neither is in tune with the modern world and I think if we as a society are to be genuinely open and fluid and mobile we will need a new progressive concept of what fairness means.

The problem with equality of outcome is self-evident. It would need to be imposed by a central authority and determined irrespective of work, effort or contribution. It would deny humanity not liberate it. The problem with equality of opportunity is, in the words of Tawney, that the invitation for all to come to dinner takes place in the sure knowledge that circumstances would prevent most people from attending.

Today’s world is a very different place from Tawney’s. A globalised capitalist economy and welfare state social democracy have successfully combined to eradicate many of the social evils which gave birth to progressive politics. Thankfully, poverty today is a stranger to most families in countries like our’s. Laws protect workers and uphold gender and racial equality. It is not that disadvantage has been eradicated – it hasn’t – but that it takes different forms. As Amartya Sen has noted families and communities can suffer not only economic disadvantage but social, educational and cultural disadvantage as well. A more holistic agenda is needed. In my view its focus needs to be on how we narrow the gap in life chances between the less well off and the better off so that those who have the aptitude and aspiration to do so get a fair opportunity to progress – regardless of their starting point in life. I believe this is the new progressive cause for modern politics: how to deliver fairness in life chances by empowering individual citizens and local communities to progress.

Such an approach recognises that people should have a fair chance at every stage and every age of life not a one-off opportunity whether at birth, at age 11 or 16. It recognises too that social mobility isn’t something that can be given to people: it has to be won through their efforts and endeavours. Governments and others can do more to equalise opportunities throughout life but in the end social mobility relies on individual drive and ambition.

This is a long way from where much of public policy has been. All too often it has been stuck in trying to correct the outcomes of market-driven inequalities such as low wages and child poverty once they have happened. At best this form of welfare state redistribution through benefit payments or tax credits takes place after the event and offers palliatives rather than cures. At worst, it fosters dependency and while cushioning the blow of poverty does not help people escape it. In my view a different approach is needed – one which tackles the roots not the symptoms of disadvantage before they become entrenched.

Doing so means recognising that different groups in society have different starting points in life. That demands differentiated approaches from government and others. The middle class parents who do not have the right connections to land their daughter an internship are in a different position from the child of the housing association tenant whose family and community have plenty of experience of intergenerational unemployment but none of university education. An approach is needed which combines opening up opportunities across society with more targeted action without which some will never get the chance to seize such opportunities. We will not create a mobile society unless we can create a level playing field of opportunity.

If social mobility is to be anything other than motherhood and apple pie we need to be more precise about what we are trying to achieve. Of course more jobs and better schools open up more opportunities in society. But when it comes to social mobility the critical question is whether the gap between the most well-off and the least well-off is widening or narrowing when it comes to getting those opportunities. For me, success is all about narrowing the life chances gap. The goal we should be aiming for is to reduce the extent to which a person’s class or income is dependent on the class or income of their parents. In other words, to prevent both social advantage and social disadvantage being inherited rather than earned. That is what I will be looking to government to do and it is what I will be looking to report on.

Next, we need to have a far better understanding about what makes for a more mobile society. Clearly the more child poverty there is and the fewer good schools there are the less hope there is for social progress. There are clear correlations in our country between where you start out and where you end up. If you grow up in poverty the chances are you will live your life in poverty. If you end up in a low achieving school the chances are you will end up in a low achieving job. If you miss out on university the chances are you will miss on a professional career. But some of this is also about individual personality – people’s drive and ambition. Even here, however, some traits can be acquired, even learned. Soft skills – confidence, communication, teamwork – are a case in point. They are more and more in demand in the modern labour market. Private schools tend to excel in soft skills development, state schools less so. Reforms are needed to put that right. Similarly we know that parents taking an interest in their children’s education has four times more influence on attainment at age 16 than social background. We know too that where parents don’t help, various interventions from state agencies and others can. So again we need to do more of that, as both Frank Field and Graham Allen have recently argued.

The problem is that the list of what makes a difference to social mobility is pretty long. I think it is time we wrapped some science around that list. As part of my work I want to identify the things that have the largest impact. That will then allow governments and others to be far sharper about which interventions at which point in people’s lives are capable of making the biggest difference. Through Surestart for example Labour began to give far greater attention to early years policies. There is a mass of evidence that clear focus and good policy here can make a huge difference particularly in disadvantaged communities. Much more needs to be done but early years policies are not a magic wand. By themselves they will not conjure up a more mobile or a fairer society. Peoples’ lives contain many make or break moments. Entry to primary and, especially, secondary school. Access to good teaching while at school. Transition to employment or higher education when leaving school. Opportunities to progress once in work. Governments and others need to be far more precise at identifying what are the most critical points and what are the best interventions – and then they should put effort and resources behind them. In an age of austerity social progress depends on governments being able to answer a simple question: what will give the biggest social mobility bang for the taxpayers buck?

The implications of the life chances approach to social mobility that I have outlined are profound. It would mean assessing whether at each key life stage – during the early years, progress while at primary school, school attainment at aged 16, the chance to get to university, incomes and careers advancement in adulthood – the gap between the less well off and the better off is widening or narrowing. It would mean giving our key public services -community health, local authorities, schools and universities – new responsibilities to pursue policies that help close that gap. In the case of schools, for example, it would mean holding them to account not just for improving standards – raising the bar – but also for narrowing the attainment gap. Of course, by necessity social mobility – because it compares one generation with the next – is a long term journey. But I will be looking for short term progress. Over the course of this Parliament I will be assessing at each life stage whether the social gap in our country is widening or narrowing.

In short then, I want this and indeed any future prospective government to explicitly commit to making social mobility its top social policy priority. I want it to clearly and transparently set out its strategy for achieving progress. I want it to identify and pursue its key policies for action and for investment. I want it to assess and report on its progress.

Of course there is no single lever that on its own can make Britain more socially mobile. No single organisation can make it happen either. It is far too complex an issue for that. It’s as much about family networks as it is careers advice, individual aspirations as school standards, career development opportunities as well as university admission procedures. I will be looking at all of these factors in making my annual reports.

Each year I will also focus on an area for particular attention. This year it will be the contribution to social mobility made by our universities. As our economy relies ever more on high levels of skills and education they will become more crucial to social mobility in the future. We are fortunate in the UK to have some of the greatest universities in the world and to have had more and more people benefiting from a university education. In the 1960s there were 200,000 university students. Today there are over 2.5 million. But that great expansion – with young people now 20% more likely to go on to higher education than in the mid-1990s – is coming to an end. In these circumstances universities will need to work ever harder to ensure they are guaranteeing fair access to the widest possible pool of talent. In recent months the focus has been on the potential impact of the Government’s changes to student fees. Government policy towards universities clearly has a bearing on the contribution they can make to fairer life chances and I will have something to say about that in my report later this year. But so too do the policies of the universities themselves. As the universities often remind us, they are autonomous organisations with the right to set their own agendas not least around academic admission and social inclusion.

In recent years universities as a whole have worked hard to widen access. HEFCE research provides evidence of a narrowing gap in higher education participation rates of the most advantaged and disadvantaged areas. In the last decade the proportion of young people from less advantaged backgrounds getting into university increased. Nonetheless pupils from a deprived background are half as likely to go on to study at university as their peers from professional backgrounds. Recent research from the Sutton Trust shows that pupils who went to private school were 22 times more likely to get a place at a top ranked university and 55 times more likely to get an Oxbridge place than state school pupils who qualified for Free School Meals. In actual fact the most advantaged 20 per cent of the young population are seven times more likely than the most disadvantaged 40% to attend the most selective institutions. But while the elite universities have attracted much attention – and criticism – for being so socially segregated they are not alone. It is true that Oxford and Cambridge attract fewer than 1% of their students from a free school meals background and over 40% from a private school background. But there is a far more widespread pattern. Despite often considerable efforts to socially widen their intakes universities such as Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leeds and Birmingham all have fewer than 3% free school meals students and more than 20% privately educated students. Even some of the newer universities like Brighton, Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Met admit more students from private schools than those who have qualified for free meals at state schools.

In recent years universities – taken as a whole – have tried hard to address these problems. They have embarked on a myriad of outreach, mentoring, aspiration raising and widening access initiatives. But at worst that approach is not working, at best it is working far too slowly. Social class still too much determines who gets into higher education generally and to the top universities particularly. A rethink is needed.

In good part these social differences in access to higher education reflect an attainment gap between better off and less well off kids at aged 16. But it is not all the fault of schools. When HEFCE evidence shows that a typical state school pupil – once they get in to university – performs at the same or at a higher level than privately educated pupils who have better A-level grades then it’s pretty clear that universities are failing to match opportunity to ability. They need to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they are doing enough to make their institutions open to the widest possible pool of talent and whether they can do more to advance social mobility in our country. That is particularly important in the light of changes to student funding. So during these next few months I will be examining what universities are doing to ensure fair access and what more they could do. I will report in the autumn.

One thing, for me at least, is already certain – modern Britain can’t work if it harbours a closed shop mentality. Too many of our institutions still ascribe to the old assumption that progress can be achieved on the basis of a limited pool of talent having access to a limited set of opportunities. It is not just that such elitism is unjust socially. It can no longer work economically. The UK’s future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent not just some of it.

My contention is that it is not ability that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is opportunity. We will not create a mobile society unless we create more of a level playing field of opportunity. The core purpose of any modern progressive government should be this. To break down barriers of entrenched privilege and vested interest. To open up avenues of advancement so they are available to all, not just some. To redistribute power and opportunity in our society. To narrow the gap in life chances in our country. That is what I will be working to achieve – regardless of who is in government.




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Alan Milburn

is chair of the social mobility and child poverty commission and a former secretary of state for health

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