Social Mobility in Education: A Mixed Picture

By Matt Bezzant

Thursday 2 July 2020

Disadvantaged pupils face deep challenges, requiring a corresponding level of strategic effort to address them.”

On 10th June, the Social Mobility Commission launched a new report entitled ‘Monitoring social mobility 2013 to 2020’. In this article, NFER’s Policy Communications Manager, Matt Bezzant, looks at the report from an education policy lens and summarises its key findings.

‘Social mobility’ has long been the political buzzword, from Tony Blair’s ‘opportunity society’; Gordon Brown’s vision for everyone to ‘achieve their potential’; David Cameron’s ‘aspiration nation’; Theresa May’s ‘country that works for everyone’ to the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. But social mobility is far more than just a buzzword, and the fact that so many senior level politicians highlight it as a priority for our country demonstrates the importance of social mobility.

The Social Mobility Commission was originally set-up in 2010 as the Child Poverty Commission, becoming the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2012 and the Social Mobility Commission in 2016. It is an advisory non-departmental public body of the Department for Education, which has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the UK and to promote social mobility in England.

The Commission drew up recommendations for improving social mobility in 2013, and had found that social mobility had stagnated in 2018/19 in its ‘State of the Nation’ report. The Commission’s latest report, ‘Monitoring Social Mobility’, audits Whitehall departments against some of the key recommendations it has made over the past seven years.

As the report states, ‘the responses paint a mixed picture’. There are 4.2 million children living in poverty, which is 600,000 more than in 2011/12, and this is predicted to worsen particularly following the Coronavirus crisis. The report uses the RAG scale (Red, Amber, Green) to audit departments on progress. Of the 52 questions asked, 31% were given a Red rating, suggesting that ‘little or no action has been taken by successive governments’. 46% were rated Amber, showing ‘some but insufficient progress’, and 23% were rated green, showing ‘strong progress or delivery’.

Looking specifically at early years, the report found that ‘young people from less affluent backgrounds make less progress in early life and are less likely to be school-ready’. It has called the gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds ‘significant’, with 57% of pupils entitled to free school meals achieving a good level of development, compared to 74% of all other pupils.

The report acknowledges successes for the government, for example the DfE’s ‘clear and energetic commitment to early years’, the ‘significant steps [taken] to improve the quality of the home learning environment for those from disadvantaged backgrounds’, and the ‘good intent’ shown to target communications at lower-income families. However, it also highlights key areas of concern, including the ‘absence of a consistent strategy’ for early years, the lack of extension of eligibility for the 30-hour childcare offer, and the lack of a review ‘to establish the position of children’s centre in the national policy picture’.

In terms of education, the report found that only 51% of disadvantaged pupils reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school; this is compared with 71% of all other pupils. Moreover, only 25% of disadvantaged pupils get a good pass in English and Maths GCSE compared to 50% of all others, and at age 18 there is still a significant gap, which continues into students’ post-18 destinations.

The report again highlights where the government has been successful; for example making progress towards eliminating innumeracy and illiteracy (although only 71% of disadvantaged pupils pass the phonics screening check compared to 82% overall); reviewing and implementing recommended accountability measures (such as post-16 destination measures and the Ofsted outstanding exemption); making health and relationships education compulsory; and the development of a pupil premium toolkit. In terms of Further Education, the Commission welcomes the DfE’s actions to update the Discretionary Bursary Fund and a £400 million package for 16-19 education.

However, the report notes that despite the government’s ambition, ‘the situation on the ground is not getting better.’ The attainment gap remains wide and the report notes that the Sutton Trust has found that admissions system disadvantages thousands of already disadvantaged children.[1] The Commission believes that schools should have a more socio-economically diverse blend of pupils, but notes that the government has not committed itself to this goal. Concerns have also been raised around guidance for schools to know how to use Pupil Premium more effectively and different measures of disadvantage and vulnerability. Regarding Further Education, despite the funding package, spending per student will still be over 7% below 2010/11 levels in colleges and over 20% below in sixth forms. Additionally, there has been no action to implement a pupil premium for 16-19 students.

The Commission calls for a ‘coordinated strategy’ for early years and a plan which engages fully with local authorities and other early education providers. It states that ‘this should be backed with significant investment’. For education, the Commission states that school and college leaders must be given enough funding and support to implement evidence-based interventions, and calls on the government to put disadvantaged students at the heart of policy design in post-16 education.

The government faces a major challenge now and over the next few years to improve social mobility. In 2017, the board of the Social Mobility Commission resigned after stating that there had been a lack of progress to improve social mobility, and Dame Martina Milburn, Chair since 2018, resigned last month stating that what the ‘secretariat needs is an executive chairman on at least three days per week or a different structure’.

The challenge to improve social mobility will be even greater in a post-Coronavirus world. To improve social mobility in the long-term, the Government will have to act on the Social Mobility Commission’s recommendations to ensure a strategic, coordinated strategy across Whitehall.

Education can break the link between a child’s social background and their later outcomes, improving social mobility. This is why one of NFER’s primary objectives is to provide evidence on the factors affecting social mobility, educational outcomes, and later careers, in order to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to progress and succeed.

Read more

Monitoring social mobility 2013 to 2020


[1] Sutton Trust (2020). `School Places: A fair choice?’. Available:

This article also appears in Education Journal.