Reasons to hope from the new social mobility plan

Does the government’s new social mobility plan offer hope for families across the UK who are struggling to make ends meet? 

The plan offers three reasons to hope - and one big reason to worry, argues Helen Barnard.

Last week we published our UK Poverty 2017 report which showed that the UK is at a turning point in the fight to solve poverty.  For the first time in two decades we have seen sustained rises in poverty among both pensioners and children. Since 2012/13, nearly 400,000 more children have moved into poverty.  Projections for the next few years suggest that this will get much worse – with more than a million more children set to be in poverty by the end of this Parliament. This week the Department for Education unveiled its plan for improving social mobility at a Reform event supported by JRF and KPMG. So how does it match up to the challenge?

The launch offered three reasons to hope:

  1. The Secretary of State made it clear that this is a personal mission and the driving purpose of her department. This matches the Prime Minister’s stated commitment to sweep away the UK’s burning injustices.  The Government does not want Brexit to be its only legacy. It recognises that it must also deliver domestic reforms which address the underlying drivers of the Brexit vote which JRF research has shown was rooted, in part, in the anger of people shut out from decent living standards by low skills and poor-quality jobs. 
  2. The plan reframes social mobility away from picking out a small number of ‘the brightest’ disadvantaged young people and towards the goal of creating opportunity for everyone, in every place. The plan places far more emphasis on improving the language skills of all young children, improving technical education, bolstering the further education sector and helping adults retrain, than on getting a few more children from disadvantaged backgrounds into top universities.
  3. It analyses the problems well and offers solutions in the right areas. The department has taken seriously the duty to focus on solutions which have evidence behind them.  It offers ideas which JRF’s evidence suggests could make a real difference, for example:
  • Early years: improving quality and take up so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds get real developmental benefits from childcare. 
  • School education: getting the best teachers and leaders to places that are struggling to recruit and supporting professional development for those already in those places. 
  • Investing in further education, where most young people from disadvantaged areas continue their education after 16 and improving the quality of careers advice in schools.
  • Enabling people in low-paid work to retrain to move into jobs with better pay and prospects.  This includes a new National Retraining Scheme and improvements to basic skills provision, including for digital skills.

The Secretary of State also acknowledged the fact that the high ambitions set out in the plan can not be delivered by the DfE alone, citing both the Government’s new Industrial Strategy and the need for action on housing. However, this raises the central problem facing her in delivering on her bold ambitions: the rest of the Government needs to get behind this mission, and so far we have not seen much sign of that.

Last month we saw a Budget which spectacularly missed the opportunity to ease the pressures facing low-income families. Costs continue to rise whilst benefits and tax credits are frozen. Nearly half of low-income households have to spend more than a third of their income on housing. More and more people are having to use other income to top up housing benefit, leaving less money for other essentials. Low pay remains endemic in our economy and the National Living Wage alone will not solve the problem of 3.7 million workers living in poverty. Likewise, the measures announced in the social mobility plan are well targeted but small scale, with many lacking the funding needed for real transformation.   

The launch of the social mobility plan shows that the Secretary of State gets the problem and is willing to focus on the right solutions. But these entrenched problems cannot be solved unless the Government works together, and involves businesses, communities and local leaders. It is now up to the rest of the Cabinet to step up and play their part in delivering real change for people struggling on low incomes across the UK.