Social Mobility Commission admits making little impact

Body previously warned about grammar school expansion and failure to close GCSE gap, but MPs raise concerns about lack of work in last year

Dame Martina Milburn of the Social Mobility Commission giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee.

The chair of the government’s body to promote social mobility has admitted it has not made much impact in the year since she was appointed.

Dame Martina Milburn became head of the Social Mobility Commission last July after its previous leaders resigned in protest at a lack of government progress on the issue.

In 2017, it issued 13 reports, including research that raised concerns about the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, the "significant barriers" young Muslims face at school and the failure of schools policy over two decades to greatly reduce the GCSE gap between poorer pupils and their peers.

However, in the year since Dame Martina was appointed, its main publication has been its annual state of the nation report.

MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee raised a series of concerns about the organisation as Dame Martina appeared before them this morning.


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Labour MP Lucy Powell questioned whether it had made an impact since Dame Martina was appointed.

The commission chair responded: “I don’t think there has been a lot of impact in the first year because I think we had to restart with a whole new commission because there was nothing in place.”

She added: “I think we are at the point now where once we have published our strategy and commissioned the research we want to start seeing the impact coming through.”

The committee heard that the government has given it £2 million to commission research in the current financial year.

Ms Powell said: “This is a lot of public money for a body that’s been in existence for many years that is somehow just getting its act together and bringing people together and having nice chats.”

Sammy Wright, the vice principal of Southmoor Academy, Sunderland, who was named as one of the 12 social mobility commissioners last October, disagreed.

He said: “I really wouldn’t accept that description of what we are doing here.

“We have various statutory duties which we have been fulfilling, such as the writing of the annual state of the nation report, which I do feel represents a pretty comprehensive use of new data providing new answers in this space, and the amount of research and effort that has gone into that should not be minimised.”

Committee chair Robert Halfon asked how forcefully the commission had criticised the government, publicly and privately, when they believed they had not done enough to promote social justice.

Dame Martina said: “I don’t think we have yet. We have brought out the state of the nation report. We are about to sign off our strategy which will be ready by the end of the summer. We have commissioned £1 million of research which will give us the facts that we need to then go in and have the conversations.”

MPs focused on the amount of research the commission carries out, with Ms Powell asking for it to be “a lot more focused on impact, on making policy change that will change the outcomes that you want and not on the kinds of woolly nice stuff”.

Dame Martina told the committee that while she would want the commission to be able to spend money on initiatives that would have a direct impact, it was not allowed to do so.

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