Damian Hinds is MP for East Hampshire and chairs the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility. Follow Damian on Twitter.
Social mobility – the extent to which where you end up in life is about your talents and efforts rather than your background – is relatively low in Britain, and has been for quite a long time.
Today the all-party group on social mobility launches its first report, Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility which examines the main components of the social mobility challenge.
The Seven Key Truths are:
- The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between ages 0 and 3, primarily in the home
- You can also break the cycle through education…
- . …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching
- But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
- University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
- But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
- Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain
In a number of these areas, there is already a very strong story to tell on the Coalition’s record, with more to come. Opportunity for all is a core Conservative value and I am pleased and proud that this government is grasping the social mobility challenge with ambitious reforms.
You can track the opening up of gaps between the rich and the poor back to before school begins. The report calls this ‘the point of greatest leverage’ for social mobility, because it is probably where you can have most impact of all: fall behind early on and it is very difficult to catch up again.
For the early years, the biggest move from the government is the extension of free nursery care to 260,000 disadvantaged 2-year-olds, alongside the refocusing of the Early Years Foundation Stage.
But obviously the majority of a baby’s development from birth to three happens at home, not in a nursery. This is a difficult area – we must avoid (literal) nanny-statism – but equally it can’t be ignored. The recruitment of 4,200 extra health visitors will help in supporting new mums and dads, and the government is also encouraging innovation on Sure Start outreach programmes. This complements the work done by voluntary sector groups like Home Start and others. But this is an area which does warrant more public debate – how best to support parents to give more kids a better start in life.
Michael Gove’s 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching notes “For far too long we have tolerated the moral outrage of an accepted correlation between wealth and achievement at school; the soft bigotry of low expectations” and his reforms are aimed squarely at attacking this.
The Pupil Premium is a radical but simple structural reform to help rebalance the odds. 1.77m will benefit from the £600 extra funding. As Conservatives we know that just spending more money is not an end in itself. That’s why the Education Endowment Fund is so important – evaluating the best ways of spending the Pupil Premium to improve the actual outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.
There are also things that government can do without spending huge sums. The English Baccalaureate was criticised by some as ‘elitist’ when it was announced, but it was the opposite. Students at the best schools were already doing the core E-Bacc subjects. What the E-Bacc does is send a clear signal to everyone that, other things being equal, these are the subjects that keep your options most open, and give you the best platform to progress.
And what matters most of all at school? Your teachers. Obvious, perhaps, but past governments haven’t reflected this in a relentless drive for outstanding teachers. The new select committee report, also out today, shows just how much difference they can make. Teach First is a fantastic way of encouraging top graduates to consider teaching in difficult settings, and the Coalition is supporting a dramatic expansion. More than half of Teach First teachers stay on past their two year commitment, and more of course may return to teaching later.
In Higher Education, most of the difference in admissions between state and private sectors is accounted for by differences in GCSE and A Level results. Most, but not quite all. So it is sensible, alongside the drive for improved exam results, to ask universities to demonstrate what they are doing to encourage applications from the widest variety of backgrounds.
Mobility matters not only for social justice but also for economic efficiency and growth. For a long time we have lagged behind our international competitors in ensuring all Britons can realise their potential. There is much that government can do and much that this government is doing. But to bridge the gap fully will require a shared commitment between schools, universities and firms, government and the voluntary sector.