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For anyone who says politics doesn’t matter, last week’s exchanges on social mobility shows they’re wrong. It also shows that, despite the difficulties, getting evidence into the debate is essential if we’re to make progress. And we do need to make progress.
The 2011 social mobility strategy set out indicators that would be used to determine progress. At that time, JRF welcomed the strategy but said we did not think it contained anything that would prevent most children growing up on low incomes from becoming adults living on low incomes. A year on, Michael Gove said:
“More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege…For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”
It was striking that Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg, speaking at the recent Social Mobility Summit, broadly agreed with him on the nature of the problem and the urgent need for action when they said (respectively):
“It’s harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. Inequality means parents have vastly different resources…to help their children get on. I believe inequality shouldn’t be handed down, generation to generation” and “We must create a more dynamic society. One where what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born.”
This very-nearly-consensus didn’t last long. A range of views were quickly thrown into the mix, with some arguing for a rejection of ‘middle-class angst’ and a return to selective schools and traditional teaching as the means of broadening opportunities, somearguing that attempts to get Universities to broaden their selection criteria were ‘communist’ social engineering – this argument strongly contested by others, some of whom were critical of attempts to address social mobility without a focus on reducing income inequality. Some also challenged the very way in which the links between income inequality and social mobility were represented.
UK income inequality is high and JRF recently published projections on how this is likely to develop to 2020 along with recommendations on what could be done. However, we recognise that making progress on this is going to be difficult in the current economic climate. So, does this mean we should do nothing? I would say not, especially given the overwhelming evidence that education can play a key role in improving the life chances of today’s children. We know from recent JRF and Sutton Trust research that the educational attainment gap emerges by age 3, widens by 5 and is all but fixed by age 11 and we also have a firm evidence base as to what works in raising attainment among poorer children, this including our own work and the Education Endowment Foundation’sPupil Premium Toolkit.
At JRF, we are not neutral on inequality, poverty or social mobility. We do not think that simply because things are difficult or the debate complex that we should concede that making progress is impossible. The setting up of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and Ministerial Group on Social Mobility offer a real opportunity to firm up cross-party agreement on addressing social mobility. I think this is real opportunity for the evidence on educational attainment, social mobility and inequality to be levered into the debate. It would be shameful if we wasted it by continually obfuscating the debate, losing sight of where the agreement is and in-so-doing letting down another generation through inertia.
Grahame Whitfield is Programme Manager for Poverty and Ethnicity & Poverty and Education at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
This post was originally posted on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation blog on 28th May