The second of the two main sessions, chaired by Lynne Featherstone MP, looked at the issue of social mobility. This was picking up on the report from the Liberal Democrat inspired Independent Social Mobility Commission that was published this month. It was also a chance to respond to the Government’s New Opportunities White Paper.
The first speaker was Martin Narey, the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and the Chair of Independent Social Mobility Commission. He started by saying how the Commission had not focused on a discussion of whether or not social mobility had got worse or better but they were clear that Britain was “a society of persistent inequality”. He said that the Labour Government had done some good work on this issue but their early success had not been maintained and that the area of child poverty was a good example of “where momentum has stalled”. This was the same point made by the IFS economist in an earlier session.
He then went on to talk about the importance for social mobility of support in the early years of a child’s life. He praised the potential of the Sure Start programme, admitting to some of its faults and the need for it to improve its accessibility, but was very keen that it continued to be supported. He highlighted the importance of getting parents to read to their children. He then suggested, something that will be controversial with many liberals, the case for making parenting programmes compulsory.
He saw education as “the great leveller” but was concerned that the substantial investment we have seen over the last few years has “disproportionately benefited the more prosperous families”. We need to look to the simpler solution of getting “the most disadvantaged children to the best schools”, an argument for greater management of the admissions process. He was keen to see an expansion in vocational education and thought the Government was right to make it compulsory for 16 to 17 year olds. But saw little point in doing this if the services weren’t there for all young people that need them. His declaration that we must put a greater value on non academic attainment at school won a big round of applause from the audience.
Child poverty is expensive for the economy so there is a sound economic reason for action, but there is also a moral reason. To gasps from audience, he declared;
“a child born now in Didcot in Reading can expect to have a healthy live expectancy of 80 years. A child born in Middlesbrough a healthy life expectancy of 54 years”
The next to speak was Sonia Sodha, a senior researcher for Demos who is doing work looking at children and young peoples’ capabilities. She thought there were two ways to look at tackling social mobility; to level out the circumstances which was not realistic; or to focus on those factors which are important in influencing a young persons success and look to what the state can do to influence them.
So what does work to increase a persons chances of social mobility? She said that here is a sizable minority of people who achieve a considerable degree of social mobility. 13% of those born in the poorest quarter of society in 1970 have ended up in the richest quarter in 2000. Obviously a far higher proportion of those born into the richest quarter have stayed there, but nevertheless there is a group for which social mobility is a reality.
She said that by looking at this group it was clear that two things were critical for increasing social mobility. The importance of soft skills and early intervention.
Soft skills: While hard skills, such as literacy and numeracy were important for success, it was soft skills that mattered because they both under pin the hard skills and are more important given the way our economy and society has changed. Psychological traits have become much more important in social mobility because of changes to the labour market. Soft skills are things like; agency, motivation and application. In politics she has noticed that talk of soft skills had become more common but that this hadn’t translated into policy.
Early intervention: As an illustration of how we are failing on early intervention she said that we spend on early years education for 0-5 year olds a third of what we spend on university education. But we can act, and one critical area is parenting. She believed that there was the need for a cultural shift and behavioural change. As a society we need to recognise that parenting is something that should be supported through the state. She was aware that this could be politically difficult, especially for liberals. But, it is a myth that we know how to do parenting naturally – it is a skill. And when it fails it is expensive to put right. What we need to do is develop “a universal parenting offer” and make parenting classes for new parents, for example, as natural as health checks. After all we know what works;
“at the end of the day, love”
The next speaker was Cllr Greg Stone from Newcastle who gave a Liberal Democrat and local government response to the issue of social mobility or “maybe we should call it social inertia in some places”. He praised the commissions report but thought that “greater political will is necessary”. Councils would need to be key partners in delivering an agenda of improving social mobility and this would require a cultural change in the way local authorities operate.
However, in a good counterbalance to the previous two speakers, he saw how this has some fundamental challenges for liberalism. Wary of introducing forms of compulsion he saw the role of central and local government as providing a framework that supports aspiration;
“we can encourage inspire and assist but we cannot compel in every case…we must….inspire and incentivise people to take responsibility for their own lives”
The final speaker was the Liberal Democrat’s Deputy Leader, Vince Cable MP, who set out to gently challenge some of the assumptions of the session.
“social mobility is in danger of becoming a terrible cliché”
Making a comparison with India’s caste system he thought that “in this country we do have a subtle form of caste” and asked why we always looked at social mobility in terms of moving upwards. We don’t look at moving down the social scale very often. He was also keen to make a distinction between long range and short range mobility. Looking back at his families move from a terraced house to a semi-detached house he thought that“for most people the issue is about small increments”. He also pointed out that, politically, this was understood by the Tories. It lay behind policies such as “right to buy”.
He also asked whether we saw social mobility in terms of individuals or collective action. Conservatives and liberals will look at in terms of the experience of the individual, whereas the Labour tradition, of which he once was a part, would look at it collectively.
Responding directly to some of the points made by Martin Narey he was clear that, in tackling social mobility, we must avoid attempts to manipulate entries into professions and universities because this carried with it the danger of creating “an ocean of poison in the British middle class”. We must have a merit based system he said, which won a large round of applause.
So what did this mean for policy? Vince highlighted three areas;
- concentrate on early years education
- tackle the problems of social housing
- have clear hard hitting anti discrimination policies
This was a fascinating and challenging session which for me clearly demonstrated the tensions between a social democratic response to these issues and a more traditional liberal one. Again, the nature of the role of the state was a big theme. But there were two things that were new to me that deserve further exploration.
The first is parenting. A tricky one for liberals. But it seems to be clear that if we really do want to do something about social mobility it is an area where we need to develop clear and distinctive policies. Is a“universal parenting offer” something we could, or would want to, deliver?
The second is an attitude to work. In the Q&A session that followed there was some discussion of the insensitivity of a debate centred around “lousy v lovely jobs”. If the conditions are right many people are happy to work in low skilled jobs and that not everyone in society wants to climb the social ladder into the professions. However, there are the issues of ensure that the conditions are right. I think there is a whole agenda around securing pay, dignity and status at work that the Liberal Democrats are not properly engaged with. However, the audiences response to the point made about valuing non-academic education and supporting vocational training suggests that the party would welcome us moving more down that road.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.