Jeremy Corbyn has signalled that a new Labour government under his premiership would drop social mobility as a policy goal and replace it with a focus on social justice. Labour said it would replace the current Social Mobility Commission with a Social Justice Commission, claiming the move would be a break from 40 years of political consensus around social mobility.
But Corbyn’s speech at an education policy event in Birmingham in early June was part sense and part nonsense.
He argued that social mobility was the idea that “only a few talented or lucky people deserve to escape the disadvantage they were born into” and it had resulted in “the talents of millions of children being squandered.”
Yet pursuit of social mobility in policy and research has never just been about the opportunities of a few bright poor kids. Such an argument is like arguing that gender equality is merely about getting more women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, or that racial equality is only about more black police officers. It is not merely an oversimplification but a gross misrepresentation. It is nonsense.
At no time in the past 40 years has the pursuit of social mobility just been about poor high achievers. New Labour’s efforts to improve opportunities for deprived children revolved around reducing child poverty, Sure Start children’s centres, expanded pre-school childcare, the New Deal for Young People and its later incarnation the Future Jobs Fund.
From 2010, the Conversation-Liberal Democrat coalition set targets for social mobility that were primarily about the educational achievement of all children on free school meals. Its main policy initiative was the pupil premium – extra school funding aimed at improving the life chances for all deprived children.
The Social Mobility Commission – on which I used to sit until I resigned in 2017 – did highlight the fact that our top professions – including politics – are dominated by privately educated people and Oxbridge graduates. Alongside this though was a continuous drive to focus on the opportunities of the other half of the population that don’t go to university.
The only exception to a broad policy focus on the opportunities facing all deprived children was Theresa May’s proposal to introduce more grammar schools. Grammar schools do take a few bright poor kids and propel them into top universities – but it is too few and the education open to the vast majority of deprived children is poor. The prime minister’s proposal was almost universally condemned, and prominently so by Alan Milburn the then-chair of the Social Mobility Commission.
Corbyn does understand the breadth of what social mobility is about. In his speech he said Labour’s proposed Social Justice Commission would “measure our government’s improvements in social mobility for the entire population, not just the few”. So he knows social mobility is about the differences in life chances for all those born into deprivation versus affluence – but to emphasise his new proposal he turns a blind eye to the academic research and policy of successive governments.
The sense is in Corbyn’s proposal to expand the range of the Social Mobility Commission into a Social Justice Commission. Today’s Social Mobility Commission started out as a Child Poverty Commission under the Child Poverty Act of 2010. The coalition government changed its remit to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission before the Conservative government ended any official government recognition of child poverty in 2016.
Inequalities of opportunity
Corbyn is entirely right to say that inequality of opportunity cannot be addressed in isolation from the wider entrenched inequalities in British society. Countries with high income inequality, such as the US and the UK, also have lower social mobility. The lower inequality in Scandinavian countries – which has actually been rising lately – is also associated with more mobility. Still, Canada and Australia have similar inequality to the UK, but greater social mobility.
Inequality of opportunity can be seen across genders, races and social background. Men and women have similar educational achievements, but women have 17% lower hourly pay – and among those working full-time it is a little under 10% . Those from ethnic minorities earn between 10 and 17% less than white counterparts with the same education.
Likewise, children born into more deprived families earn 20% (women) to 40% (men) less than those from affluent families with the same education level. For male graduates who did the same course, at the same university, at the same time and got the same degree result, those from the richest third of families earn 20% more than those from the poorest third.
These are all dimensions of inequality of opportunity and show very similar stories. Along with poverty and social exclusion they make up social justice. Addressing these collectively makes sense. Social mobility is one dimension of social justice and is not one that should have the pre-eminence that it currently does. Equally, you can’t have social justice in a society without social mobility.