When Theresa May became Prime Minister almost six months ago, she made improving social mobility a priority. She tried to draw a line under the Cameron-era and promised not to govern for “the privileged few".
Now there are welcome signs that the issue is being taken seriously by Justine Greening, the comprehensive school-educated Education Secretary who has responsibility for it.
Making it easier for those at the bottom of the ladder to move up takes years, however, and politicians who take initiatives in this area are normally long gone before the results of their policies are known.
Thankfully, the independent Social Mobility Commission, chaired by the former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, shines a vital light on the success, or otherwise, of actions taken by Government, business and the education world.
Today we reveal the commission’s finding that the huge drive to create more apprenticeships may be doing less than expected to help young people from low-income families progress in work. Unless corrective action is taken, it seems that people from more affluent families will grab more than their fair share of apprenticeships – another example, perhaps, of policies being designed for the less fortunate by the middle classes which end up primarily helping their own.
The commission has found that, while children of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin in Britain outperform other ethnic groups in education, they are much less likely to be employed in managerial or professional jobs than whites.
It also discovered that in the North-east, no child on free school meals went to Oxbridge after leaving school in 2010. Among the poorest 40 per cent of families, only one in eight goes to university. While some institutions are making genuine efforts to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, at current progress it would take more than 50 years to close the university “access gap” between the areas of the country with the lowest and highest participation rates.
The Government will rightly force universities to publish more information about the backgrounds of their students, but it should go further by backing Milburn’s idea of denying them the right to charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees unless they increase admissions and reduce drop-out rates among students from poor families.
Ministers should also do a lot more to help those who do not climb the ladder at the first attempt – for example, by launching a second-chance career fund to help older workers retrain.
Despite a flurry of initiatives on social mobility, the danger is that Britain is going backwards. Indeed, people born in the 1980s are the first group since the Second Wold War not to start work with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner. Home ownership is in sharp decline, especially among young adults.
The Government must avoid talking a good game about promoting social mobility while pursuing policies in other areas which undermine that goal. Theresa May is adamant that her plans for a new wave of grammar schools will not mean a return to the divisive “eleven-plus” exam and insists that children from poor families will benefit. But many experts are not convinced, and worry that the more affluent will again be the main beneficiaries.
The Prime Minister now has an opportunity to turn her fine words on social mobility into action; we hope that she does. But while trying to ensure a better future for those currently left behind, May should resist pressure from those in her own party who want to turn the clock back through policies like grammar schools which risk pulling the rungs on the ladder even further apart.
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