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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Whatever Happened to Social Mobility?

Thursday, 19 July 2018

What do you think when you hear the words “social mobility”? For some people, it might be nothing more than a phrase they hear politicians and academics come out with every so often. However, I’d argue that making sure that we protect and advance social mobility is one of the most important tasks that we face. There is not a parent in the world who doesn’t want a better life for their children than they had themselves, and any government worth its salt makes helping its citizens get on in life its highest policy priority. Which is why it is an absolute scandal that in modern Britain social mobility has not just stalled, it has actually started going backwards.

The facts, as presented by the government’s own Social Mobility Commission, are depressingly clear. 5 in 6 of the five million people (a majority of which are women) in Britain trapped in low paid employment in 2006 are still there over a decade later. Only 6% of doctors, 12% of chief executives and 12% of journalists working today are from working-class backgrounds. Home ownership, often seen as one of the clearest signs of social mobility, has fallen by 17% in the last decade among people younger than middle aged. In education, the income of your parents has a greater influence on how well you do than your ethnicity or your gender. For too many people, being successful in Britain today isn’t about what you know or how hard you work, but about who you know and where you were born.

Graphs courtesy of The Guardian. Link:

Entire books have been written on the reasons, and the possible solutions, for this crisis in social mobility. But I want to focus on education. Here, as the case in many examples of the deterioration of our public services since 2010, austerity must bear a large share of the blame. Despite the government’s claims that school funding has increased, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently concluded that between 2009-10 and 2017-18 the money spent per pupil in England fell by 8%. Nor have those cuts fallen equally, as sixth form funding (25% cut) and local authority support (55%) has been particularly hard hit. Even that pales in comparison to the decimation of funding for adult education. To give just one example, the Open University, a world-class vehicle for social mobility for almost half a century, has been forced to lay off staff and shut down courses after £100 million worth of cuts were forced upon it in a single year. Locally-run further and adult education courses have also fared scarcely better.

But austerity is not the only part of the story here. The other baleful influence has been the government’s drive to cut out any role for the public sector in education. It is this “private always good, public always bad” mind-set that has led to the government favouring academy sponsors over local authorities as the main drivers of school improvement, despite the government’s own figures saying that local authority-maintained schools have a far superior record of turning around underperformance. It has also led to expensive and damaging mistakes like the privatisation of Learn Direct. Sold to Lloyd’s Bank in 2011, the company continued to pay its owners and managers tens of millions of pounds in dividends despite facing a catastrophic decline in graduation rates, a damning Ofsted report and a formal investigation by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. That’s not to say there can be no role for the private sector in education and skills, but it must be awarded on the basis of delivery, not ideology.

This is an area that local government must be allowed to have its say again. All we require is for the government to provide us with funding and freedom instead of austerity and mistrust. I know that we have the skills, the knowledge and the desire to once again transform education into what it can and should be: an engine of social mobility for people of all ages and backgrounds. 


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