It’s understandable and right that all politicians want to focus on social mobility. Having “a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow”, as the Prime Minister said today, is what everyone wants for themselves and their children. And as a society the last thing we can afford to do is to put up barriers that mean we waste our precious talent as a nation.
So it’s good that Theresa May has laid such an important marker for social mobility – or meritocracy as she chose to call it – by making it the subject of her first policy speech since entering Downing Street.
Crucially, she also spelt out whose mobility she was really focused on – the ‘just managing’. This group, which she differentiated from the ‘disadvantaged’ on lower incomes who receive more direct support from the state, she described as earning between £16,000 and £21,000. In general, ‘just managing’ seems like a good name for this group and it is a welcome focus indeed for the Prime Minister of a 21st Century Britain struggling with the dual perils of an overreliance on low paid work and rising housing costs.
New analysis from us at the Resolution Foundation shows there are 2.3 million families with gross earnings of between £16-21,000. That number falls to 2.1m families once we exclude pensioners, where interestingly the focus on struggling working age families marked something of a shift for a Conservative politician. Of those 2.1m households, half a million have children, giving us two important conclusions about how a government supports them. First the state is already a big deal for these families. A big majority of ‘just managing’ households with children are receiving tax credits, with a one child family on even £21,000 receiving £2,100 a year. Secondly, even though some of the remaining 1.6 million households will go on to have children, the fact that right now the vast majority do not tells us that if the Prime Minister wants to help this group then action will need to be about much more than schooling.
That said, the focus on schools in the speech today is understandable. After all one of the clearest signs of backward social mobility in the second half of 20th century was how family income became more important in determining educational attainment. So there is a problem to address, and the good news is that it’s something we know we can do something about – witness the big falls in the educational attainment gap in London over the last two decades. However, that was achieved through leadership, high quality teaching and funding, not through grammar schools – which in selective areas recruit 3 per cent of kids on free school means compared to 18 per cent in other schools. The detail of how the government intends to bring these figures closer together will help to determine how different the new grammar schools of the future really are.
The risk however with focusing solely on schools is that any progress made – and the evidence suggests grammar schools do the opposite – is unwound by problems elsewhere. We saw this in the 90s when richer families scooped the rewards of expanded access to higher education while not enough was done for those that didn’t make it to university – a problem that blights the life chances of millions today.
And we still haven’t got to grips with helping the one in five workers in Britain who are low paid, the lack of opportunities to move on in the workplace, and that still great barrier to social mobility – where you live. The capacity for these here and now issues to destroy people’s hopes and dreams for intra-generational mobility, never mind intergenerational mobility, is real and one of our great failings as a nation.
One here and now mobility problem that needs a here and now solution for the ‘just managing’ is pay progression. By the end of this parliament around one in seven workers throughout Britain are set to be on the minimum wage. That’s partly because of the boldness of the new National Living Wage which is rightly raising the pay of the lowest paid – but it’s also because too many of our industries have become reliant on low skill labour, and have neglected real training or progression. This also reminds us that even if we just focus on intergenerational mobility, the challenge doesn’t finish with getting people equal educational outcomes. Recent research has shown that even if people from high and low income families get the same degree, the former are more likely to go into top jobs and at age 40 earn 20% more than their university mates from poorer families.
In some cities one in five workers will be paid the state set minimum. One wage towns are not ones in which people progress on and up, giving themselves a better life and giving their children the opportunity to do better still. We also need to be honest that for too many low pay isn’t some kind of temporary launch pad onto better things, but more a career path that few are able to escape from. Resolution Foundation research has found that even over a ten year period only one in four low paid permanently escaped into higher paying roles. It’s no good raising educational attainment if a fifth of the pupils move on to the minimum wage – and struggle to proceed much further than that.
So yes social mobility matters – and yes schools matter a lot in shaping those outcomes. Improving teaching quality should be the first priority in that regard. But just as crucial if we’re to help those just managing is the hard graft of creating routes from school to decent careers, beyond the existing route from A-levels to university and work. It’s remarkable how little we hear about the forgotten 40 per cent who are non-graduates, who face huge barriers in their careers.
Real social mobility is definitely crucial if we’re to help ‘just managing’ families. But we need a broader focus on progression in work, on building homes, and on geography to reduce segregation and connect people to growing economies. That’s how we improve mobility in the here and now.