4 things we learned from the Social Mobility Commission’s education committee hearing

The chair of the Social Mobility Commission faced a grilling at the education select committee today.

Dame Martina Milburn pledged last year to “change things” at the commission, but she faced a tough time from MPs this morning and was accused of failing to act to tackle social mobility.

Here are the four key takeaways:


1. Diversity of commissioners brought into question

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, highlighted how Milburn initially said she wanted a “very unique and diverse range of commissioners”, yet commissioners include senior bosses from BT, Cosmopolitan, TKMaxx, the London School of Economics and Barclays.

“You have a lot of people on here (the list) who are the great and the good,” Halfon said. “Where are the great disruptors? Real people working in grassroots charitable organisations… who are really changing lives and know what goes on on the ground?”

Halfon said he is not criticising the expertise of the people on the list, but said the range is not broad enough.

Milburn defended the choice of commissioners and stressed that they come from a range of backgrounds. She added: “In terms of the disruptors, I’d say it was virtually the entire commission.”


2. Commission urged to act, not just research

At several points throughout the hearing, Milburn was forced to justify the existence of the commission.

Halfon asked: “I’m not sure what the difference is you make. What’s your unique selling point?”

He added that if it were just about commissioning research, of which the commission has a budget from the DfE of £2 million, then that could be given to other organisations and academic institutions. The commission has already spent £1 million on research and in April published its State of the Nation report.

The last team of commissioners resigned en-masse in December 2017 in protest over government inaction, and Milburn admitted the commission had not had a great deal of impact in the first year because a new team had to be put in place. She also said resources had been spent on getting their house in order.

But Lucy Powell said: “This is a lot of money for a body that has been in existence for many years, that’s somehow just getting its act together, bringing people together to have nice chats.”

Thelma Walker listed several examples of reports which touched on social mobility, such as last month’s publication from UN rapporteur Philip Alston, whereby the commission had failed to offer comment. “Part of your role is to hold the government to account,”  Walker told Milburn.

School leader Sammy Wright, one of the commissioners, added: “We are at the point where we are gearing up for impact.”


3. Milburn has met the education secretary just once

Following the growing scrutiny over an alleged lack of impact and action, committee members challenged just how much ministers listened to the commission.

“When we (the education select committee) publish reports, the government responds,” Halfon said.

But Milburn revealed that in the past six months she has only had one meeting with education secretary Damian Hinds, and one or two phone calls.

The head of the commission has had no other ministerial meetings.

4. Labour ‘unhappy’ report didn’t kick Tories

Milburn sparked controversy at the committee hearing when she accused Labour of being unhappy with the State of the Nation report because it did not show that social mobility had gotten worse since the Conservatives had been in power.

Milburn said: “What I found interesting about the State of the Nation report was that I understand that the government weren’t happy because social mobility hadn’t improved and the opposition weren’t happy because it hadn’t got worse.”

Despite Powell and several other committee members condemning this assertion and saying it was untrue, Milburn doubled down on her comments, adding: “I was put under quite a lot of pressure and people wanted to raise questions about (how) Tory austerity has made social mobility worse.”

James Frith called the comment “crass”, adding: “I don’t think that sets any kind of positive intent to start constructive dialogue early on.”

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