Education is not enough to improve social mobility, former commissioners warn

Four ex-members of the government's Social Mobility Commission plan to set up a social mobility institute to make 'practical change'

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Education alone is not enough to improve social mobility, the government’s former social mobility commissioners have told MPs.

Last month all four members of the government’s Social Mobility Commission resigned in protest over a perceived lack of progress towards making a "fairer Britain".

In evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee today, they criticised the lack of a cross-government approach to the issue, saying it had been left to former education secretary Justine Greening to pick up the issue at the Department for Education.

They also revealed their plans to set up an institute of social mobility, to bring about practical changes.

David Johnston, one of the four commissioners who quit, said the big thing that was missing in government was a cross-departmental strategy on social mobility.

He said: “The education department has produced a pretty good action plan but it is just for education. It is not covering the labour market or a whole bunch of other areas you would want to.”

He added: “You certainly need a Cabinet minister who has the ability to harness all of the different levers that need to be pulled to make progress.”

Educational attainment 'isn't the only factor'

Former education secretary Baroness Shephard, who was deputy chair of the commission, agreed that a cross-government strategy was needed, citing as a model the recently announced minister for loneliness.

She said: “If it were left to education then they might be tempted to think that educational attainment was the only thing that mattered. There are a whole load of other things that matter. Aspiration in disadvantaged areas is a tremendously important thing.

“There is a whole section on the impact of Hinkley Point [nuclear power station project] in [the commission’s last report], on the fact that it is opening young people’s eyes to the fact that there are 1,000 high-level apprenticeships that are coming in the wake of Hinkley Point.”  

Alan Milburn, the former health secretary who chaired the Social Mobility Commission, said that in the absence of “coordination and coherence from the centre of government”, it had been left to individual ministers to “run with the agenda”, with Justine Greening setting up a social mobility unit within the DfE.

Mr Milburn outlined the plans of the former commission members to create a social mobility institute.

He said: “We want to compile an evidence base about what works, so if you are a big employer, for example, what are the five things you should change if you want to really diversify your workforce? How do you do it? What are the processes that you need to change?

“We want to provide an evidence base and then we want to work alongside those organisations in civil society with them to bring about some practical change.”

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