'Social mobility is good, it’s just not everything'

Social justice must be our primary focus: we need to tackle inequalities and ensure opportunity for all, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

Social mobility, Jeremy Corbyn, Social Justice,

Labour’s proposed shift to a focus on social justice is welcome. But social mobility is an important component of social justice, so we shouldn’t talk it down.

Earlier this month, Jeremy Corbyn said that he wanted to focus on opportunity for all and social justice, rather than social mobility. The argument was that we should focus on raising standards and opportunities for all, rather than focusing on how a small number of young people can progress. In other words, we need a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than just focusing on a lifeboat for some people.

Let’s unpack that a bit. Social mobility measures the likelihood of someone being born into a poor family or starting a low-paid job, going on to progress into higher income careers. We know that social mobility is relatively low compared to other countries and that a good chunk of this is explained by educational inequalities (the fact that your chances at school are strongly linked to how your parents did at school). There are lots of practical demonstrations of this, including the high proportion of MPs, judges and journalists who have been to private school – completely out of kilter with the reality that only around one in 10 of the population as a whole went to private school.

Background: Labour to swap 'social mobility' for 'social justice'

Blog: Five ways to boost social mobility through skills

Opinion: 'Social mobility focus needed on apprenticeships'

There is no way to justify this situation. As well as limiting people’s chances in life according to the lottery of where they’re born, it also represents a colossal waste of talent for our economy and society. How many potential Mozarts or Einsteins have we lost purely because of where they were born? In my opinion, social mobility should be a goal of government – though the term itself does sound a bit abstract.Perhaps it might have better resonance publicly if it was described in terms of fairness?

I don’t think, though, that it should be the sole goal. We should be concerned too about overall inequalities in society and there is a risk that people use examples of social mobility to justify inequalities, a point the Labour leader made. The reality of modern society is clearly a lot more complicated than that, and the concept of social justice can help to capture that bigger picture.

I think in practice, a wider focus on social justice is needed in order to deliver greater social mobility in any case. My argument would be that this wider view of social justice should include opportunity for all and tackling inequalities – and that these are prerequisites for improving social mobility in any case.

For example, it is certainly difficult to argue against opportunity for all. Indeed, even if your only goal was social mobility, you wouldn’t know who to send the lifeboat for unless you made sure everyone had a fair chance to demonstrate their talents.

Similarly, it’s true that educational inequality is stark and needs to be properly tackled – everyone should have access to a good education. That would help reduce overall levels of inequality in society and widen access to different careers. Everyone should be able to have a good standard of living and we should value all jobs and occupations.

So social mobility is good, it’s just not everything. Opportunity for all and reduced inequality can help to increase social mobility – it’s easier to climb a ladder if the ladder is shorter and the rungs are closer together. That’s why I think Jeremy Corbyn and Robert Halfon have a point when they (separately) call for the Social Mobility Commission to become the Social Justice Commission. Mr Corbyn is also right to say that the current education system risks reinforcing rather than tackling inequalities and that we should focus on this.

It is this wider view of social justice that Learning and Work Institute’s Youth Commission will focus on as it develops its recommendations: opportunity for all, reducing inequalities and promoting social mobility. All three can go hand in hand, rather than fighting against one another. But to do so, social justice needs to be the primary focus.

You shouldn’t have to leave your community or aim for the very top of the career ladder in order to have a decent standard of living or the chance to make the most of your talents. But similarly, the only limit on your ambitions should be your talent and hard work, not where you come from. Social justice can neatly encapsulate both these concepts – opportunity for all and fairness.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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