Social Mobility in Great Britain – more heat than light?

By Caroline Sharp

Friday 28 June 2019

Barely a day goes by without a new announcement on social mobility. Last week, Damian Hinds announced that the pace at which we were closing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has started to slow - and we need to think about what to do differently. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has rejected a focus on social mobility for some people, in favour of social justice for all.

The recent publication of the Social Mobility Commission’s (SMC) latest State of the Nation report draws attention to the ‘deeply entrenched’ inequalities in British society, including the shocking fact that there is now a higher proportion of children in poverty than working-age adults or pensioners.

So what can we do to stop the transfer of disadvantage from one generation to the next?   NFER welcomes the SMC’s focus on the early years because we recognise the gap in development is already large and well established before children start school. We know that access to high quality group childcare is associated with a range of benefits for young children’s development.  But, as the SMC report points out, families on the lowest incomes are least likely to be aware of the offer of 30 hours’ free childcare. 10 per cent of families in the most deprived areas don’t take it up, compared to just 2 per cent in the least deprived areas. Some low-income parents are not eligible for free childcare because they are unemployed or work less than 16 hours per week. The SMC’s recommendations on extending the eligibility of 30-hours free childcare and promoting the offer to low-income families are very sensible, but they may not be sufficient to address the fact that early childhood education is currently serving too few of the families who need it most.

Turning to schooling, the SMC makes a number of recommendations designed to address the attainment gap that widens as children progress education. Previous research has shown that the benefits of higher spending are greater for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. We therefore support the recommendation that the Government should consider whether the Pupil Premium is effectively targeted at supporting disadvantaged pupils; whether higher funding might benefit those with long-term disadvantage in particular; and that the Government should increase the 16-19 education budget by a significant amount and focus more funding on disadvantaged pupils. Schools can access help in determining what might be a good investment for disadvantaged pupils by using the new guide from the Education Endowment Foundation.

As far as the review of post-16 qualifications is concerned, NFER have been looking at the planned introduction of T Levels in 2020. These will offer a Level 3 qualification equivalent to three A levels, thereby providing an alternative route into higher education or employment. We think the SMC is right to question whether these will be sufficiently accessible for young people from poorer backgrounds, especially given the fact that disadvantaged young people are disproportionately more likely to be studying at Level 2 after Key Stage 4. From our own work, there are three further actions we would recommend in order to address potential barriers to social mobility in relation to T Levels:

  • Provision of extensive and targeted information, advice and guidance to explain the progression routes from Level 2 courses and the potential benefits of achieving a T Level. These should be targeted at parents and teachers as well as young people themselves.
  • An access programme aimed at helping young people not yet ready for T Levels to gain the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence to make a successful transition to T Level programmes. This is in development, but more details are needed as soon as possible.
  • Funding support to enable T Level students to travel to work placements so that no young person is excluded from completing the programme.

The next few years will bring intense scrutiny of the outcomes of T Levels for young people and their families, employers and the economy. If disadvantaged young people are not fully part of the T Level innovation story then the impact of this major reform will be undermined and its value squandered. There is also justifiable concern that the proposed removal of Applied General Qualifications (AGQs) in the same sectors as the new T levels (as outlined in the recent DFE Consultation) will have a negative impact on social mobility for this group of young people. The criticisms of this move have been wide-ranging, particularly in relation to the fact that the number of hours study required for a T level are much higher than those for an AGQ and as such may end up excluding students who have caring responsibilities or part-time work.

The SMC’s report is wide-ranging and has a large number of positive recommendations. But will these be sufficient to reverse the stagnation in social mobility given rising levels of child poverty, or should more focus be placed on reducing poverty rather than trying to mitigate against its damaging effects? Is this why Jeremy Corbyn has rejected the social mobility remit? There is a lack of nuanced analyses with regards this issue.  What more should be done to ensure that we don’t see the current stagnation in social mobility from birth to work continue in the foreseeable future?


Caroline Sharp is NFER’s Social Mobility Lead. For more on NFER’s work in this area, click here.