Social mobility

The social mobility commission is a fig leaf for inaction

We know what works, but making progress on social mobility requires politicians who care enough to act on that knowledge, says Sammy Wright

We know what works, but making progress on social mobility requires politicians who care enough to act on that knowledge, says Sammy Wright

23 Sep 2023, 5:00

Saying something is important costs nothing – actually putting it first is a lot harder.

When I joined the social mobility commission in 2018, part of the induction day involved a whistle-stop tour of every administration of the past thirty years and how each and every one of them had stated ‘social mobility’ in some form or other was key to their programme.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard that social mobility was at its lowest for 50 years.

How can both be true?

My time on the commission taught me the simple answer. For all the high-flown rhetoric, no one in government cares enough to act.

I’m not saying they’re all heartless. I didn’t say no one cares. They just don’t care enough. In my mind, I’m reminded of the anguished conversations I had with other young parents when my kids were in nappies.

“Isn’t it terrible,” we’d say. “All this waste. We really shouldn’t use disposables.”

But when it came to the hard work of washing nappies, no one wanted to get their hands dirty.

Look at the commission itself. A public body, widely recognised. When I joined, people would say, “Isn’t that amazing?” and “Wow! You’re going to really make a difference.”

But here’s a little bit of cold water. When I joined, there were 12 commissioners but only five full-time staff. Each commissioner was contracted for one day a month.

In 2019, I was grilled by the education select committee. It was weirdly aggressive. They seemed outraged that we had achieved nothing in our first six months. We pointed out that for us, that was six days’ work. They seemed obsessed with the vast resources at our disposal. At one point, they suggested that we might be better off just redirecting our budget into schools.

I pointed out that our budget was about half of what it takes to run one secondary school for a year.

I didn’t say no one cares. They just don’t care enough

The levels of ignorance in the politicians I encountered was only really matched by my own. I was appointed, but I wasn’t trained. We were amateurs – just like the politicians who were guiding us. I thought – and still think – that group of commissioners were brilliant and committed. But if you actually wanted to shift the dial on social mobility, that commission was not how to do it.

Because this is the other thing that even the education select committee seemed unable to grasp:  

We had no power.

Our statutory obligation was to place a report in front of parliament once a year. But the government had no obligation to respond. We couldn’t make policy; we could only recommend it.

But most of the time, they just said no. I was the lead for schools and HE – and yet I never met a secretary of state for education. In three years, I had half an hour with Nick Gibb, and half an hour with Michelle Donelan when she was minister for universities. We were invited as a group to Downing Street – but not to actually talk to anyone in government, just to look around and sit in a meeting room.

During the slow-motion car crash of the Covid exams fiasco, I spoke again and again to Ofqual and the DfE, making precisely the point that tripped them up. I told them repeatedly that they could not hope to have the same distribution of grades as exams without egregious unfairness to individuals – but they ignored me completely.

So if we weren’t influencing policy, what were we for?

We were a distraction. A mask for inaction. We signalled that social mobility was ‘on the agenda’ even as it was ignored by everyone.

The most frustrating thing of all is that the answer to social mobility isn’t complicated. On that first day, we were shown the Gatsby curve – a simple graph that shows social mobility is directly related to income equality. On the first day of my tenure, we had all the evidence we needed.

You want social mobility?

Tax wealth. Tax inheritance. Build council houses. Fund schools. Pay proper wages. End the two-child benefit cap.

Anything less? Stop pretending you care.

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