It’s clear that Justine Greening cares deeply about social mobility – the extent to which your life chances are affected by your background. She speaks about it from the heart, and her commitment to making it central to education policy is undoubted.
I would also agree with the secretary of state that this is one of the defining missions of our age. Today, as the social mobility action plan puts it, where you start too often determines where you end up. What’s more, our record is worse than many other countries. We can argue about terms (some prefer social justice, others life chances) but ultimately this is grossly unfair.
Not only that, it means that as a country we are wasting talent on an industrial scale. How many potential Einsteins, Mozarts, Dysons and Berners-Lees have we lost purely by accident of birth? Given the bleak outlook for economic growth set out recently by the Office for Budget Responsibility, this just isn’t sustainable.
As a nation, we need everyone to be able to make the most of their talents for both basic fairness and future prosperity.
'A clear framework for existing policy'
So far, so uncontroversial. Not many people would argue that we need less social mobility, that we should stop people progressing purely because of their background. The challenge is how to actually do it.
Quite rightly, the plan recognises that it’s not easy and that education isn’t all of the answer (though it is a substantial part).
Let’s start with the good parts. There’s a clear recognition that money isn’t everything and that government can’t solve everything. Much like the recent skills summit, this is the Department for Education calling for a partnership to make a difference. Similarly, while there may not be many new announcements, the plan provides a clear framework for existing policy and sets some clear and high ambitions for each stage of life - these will be important measures for the years to come.
I’m also really pleased to see recognition of the need for partnership and long-term working, particularly around place (rather than just policy silo) – this is the hard slog of real change. If announcing new initiatives fixed a problem, we wouldn’t have many problems left by now. So this is spot on, though ultimately the test will be whether this stands the test of time and the slings and arrows of political fortune.
Adult education key
However, the plan is shortest and weakest when it comes to adults. This matters because helping parents learn and improve their skills and earnings also helps children – the plan rightly recognises this in relation to family learning, but beyond an evidence review of this, it’s quite light. Also, as many adults will now have 50-year working lives, social mobility isn’t just something that happens at school – we can help people progress through their lives too.
Related to this, there is also little recognition of the need for partnership with a range of other public services, from Local Authorities, Housing Associations, Jobcentre Plus and more. To be fair, it’s pitched as an action plan about education, rather than a wider Government White Paper. But in many ways that’s also the point – what’s the rest of government going to do, and how will it be joined up?
To finish, a few thoughts on what else could have been included:
- Tackling inequalities in access to learning and skills. Learning and Work Institute research has shown people from ethnic minorities, disabilities and caring responsibilities too often miss out on apprenticeships and other forms of learning, with gender segregation by sector;
- Building wider learning opportunities. Apprenticeships and technical education are important but they’re not everything. Career learning pilots and the National Retraining Scheme are partial building blocks of a wider system; and
- Support for people in low paid work. Harrow and Hounslow Council’s Skills Escalator programme, evaluated by us, has shown that engagement with in-work Housing Benefit claimants, a Personal Advisor, and flexible support can help people earn more, benefiting them and their families.
The social mobility action plan has a lot to welcome, and inevitably lots where I’d like to see more. But its main impact may well be putting social mobility front and central in education policy. For that, we have Justine Greening to thank.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute