It was predictable that the first annual report from the Social Mobility Commission under the leadership of Katharine Birbalsingh would present a rosier picture than critics of our deeply unequal society are accustomed to. Ministers appointed Ms Birbalsingh because they believe she is unlikely to make life difficult for them. Her brand of “can do” toughness is a good fit with a government that wants individual young people to do their best (who doesn’t?) but doesn’t want to be challenged on the corrosive effects of poverty, or opportunity hoarding by the well-off.
The argument presented in last week’s report is that doom-mongers have had too much airtime: occupational mobility has been steady for decades. Any recent decline is blamed on previous success – the massive late 20th-century expansion in professional jobs could not go on indefinitely. The report acknowledges that income mobility is on a different trajectory, with those born since the late 1970s facing decreased chances of changing their circumstances. It notes that the gap in earnings between women from professional and working-class backgrounds has widened since 2014, and allows that the impact of the pandemic is yet to be accounted for.
But the emphasis is firmly on blowing the clouds away, and paying as much attention as possible to the inspiring stories of young people who defy the odds to “change their stars”. Repeatedly, it refers to the importance of factors that lie outside the scope of socio-economic analysis: culture, values, “family drive and motivation”. The commission, in other words, has moved as far as possible away from its initial remit of child poverty.
It is easy to be scandalised by Ms Birbalsingh, who built her reputation on attacking the progressive consensus in post-1960s education. The reaction to her recent remark that there is too much focus on getting poor pupils into Oxbridge was a good example. She is right that the UK’s two oldest universities take up disproportionate attention, and that not enough is paid to young people who don’t do degrees. It is true that social mobility need not mean only rags to riches and can encompass more incremental changes.
The report also makes reasonable points about data, including the way in which devolution has made the tracking of social trends across the four nations of the UK harder. It celebrates evidence of shrinking attainment gaps in education, while ducking more recent worrying reports, with case studies making clear the vital role played by teachers.
But none of this should distract from the bigger issue, which is that the commission has, over the decade of its existence, failed to deliver. Previous chairs recognised this, which is why they resigned: Alan Milburn in 2017, followed by Dame Martina Milburn in 2020. MPs have also been critical, but ministers rejected a suggestion from the education select committee that it should become a social justice commission with a dedicated minister.
Even this report’s authors have their doubts. They cite the academic expert John Goldthorpe, who believes “younger generations of men and women now face less favourable mobility prospects than did their parents”. Wealth and asset mobility (particularly housing) are where attention needs to turn. But there is little chance of this under the present government. Austerity and the pandemic have made the task of making Britain less unfair even harder. It is difficult to see the Social Mobility Commission making any difference at all.