new report into social mobility is, it tells us, all about "opening doors" and "breaking barriers" — but it’s probably taxing attention spans too. 89 pages of text and
graphs, offset by the same pea soup shade of green that’s used for all these coalition documents. To save you from wading through it all, here’s our quick five-point summary:
1) The same story… Much of the report, as James suggested earlier, is familiar territory. After all, the coalition’s two most
developed policy areas — welfare and education — are precisely designed to improve opportunities for the least well-off; so here they are again, restated and slightly reframed. The
pupil premium is given particular emphasis, as is the thinking behind the coalition’s policy on tuition fees. Indeed, there’s so little new content that it’s hard not to conclude that this report
is a crutch for the Lib Dems ahead of next month’s local elections: a chance for Nick Clegg, who is fronting the whole operation, to point out how social-minded the coalition is, and how much his
party is achieving in government.
2) …told particularly well. Not that point 1), above, is really a criticism of the report. The coalition’s reforms to schools and benefits do not become any less impressive
through repetition. In fact, repetition may help to impress them — and their compassionate nature — upon the public consciousness. Aside from tackling the public finances, the
coalition’s greatest achievement is likely to be the implementation of its welfare and education policies. Today’s report is a useful summary of the whys, whats, hows and wherefores.
As for Nick Clegg being the ringmaster of all this, I take Paul Goodman’s point that "Downing Street mustn’t [solely] present the
Liberal Democrats as the caring face of the coalition." After all, there’s a thick streak of blue in this report’s pea green script — and one for which credit is due to IDS, Gove, etc.
But, that said, Clegg is, to my eyes and ears, the most convincing set-piece defender of the coalition’s policies. And he has been pushing these themes since the very start of his leadership. Here,
for instance, is what he had to say on social mobility in his speech to the 2008 Lib
"A better Britain would put education and opportunity at its very heart so no child, no parent, is ever trapped in poverty.
These days, a clever, but poor child, will be overtaken at school by a less clever, but wealthier child by the age of six. The age of six. Just two thousand days old, and already let down by
We cannot let this go on.
I met a remarkable young man a couple of months ago in Southwark. Ashley had the kind of drive and charisma that fills you with hope — and the kind of childhood that makes you want to
weep. Passed about from one set of foster parents to another. These days, the government calls kids in care ‘looked-after children’. Too often, ‘looked-after’ is just a painful euphemism for a
childhood on the scrap heap. You know how many looked-after children go to university? Five percent. But Ashley defied the system, defied the statistics, and got into Cambridge. By sheer force of
personality, and with the help of a good school, he has conquered circumstance.
But it shouldn’t be so hard. The system should pave the way for people like Ashley, not set up roadblocks."
That kind of fieriness was sprinkled throughout Clegg’s appearance in Parliament earlier — particularly when he emphasised the failures of Labour’s spend, spend, spend approach to tackling
poverty — and there’s even a dose of it in his foreword to the report itself.
3) Some striking metrics. While we’re on the subject of communication, the report contains plenty of decent graphs and figures to help convey the government’s arguments. There is
even a graph to illustrate the claim made by Clegg in his 2008 conference speech (see above) that, "these days, a clever, but poor child, will be overtaken at school by a less clever, but
wealthier child by the age of six." Here it is:
And here are Coffee House versions of a some of the report’s other numerical highlights. First up, a table showing the proportion of former comprehensive school pupils in various professions:
A graph of the persistent gap in performance between those pupils who are on Free School Meals and those who aren’t:
And one to show that the UK has the worst income mobility in Europe. The higher the value, the less likely it is that the country’s children will earn more than their parents:
4) All across the lifecycle. If there is anything particularly new in this report, then it’s the proposals on internships. Although, in truth, there is not much to
them: the government will effectively "encourage" companies to stop hiring unpaid labour, while the civil service and Parliament will "lead by example" with several schemes to
recruit interns from all social backgrounds. Already, Clegg has confirmed that the Lib Dems will, "from today," always pay its interns — if only to fend off allegations of hypocrisy. Expect Hypocrisy Watch to snare some Westminster-based victims in future, though.
More generally, the light emphasis on internships is part of the coalition’s plan to improve social mobility "at every stage in the life cycle." The message is that the government’s
policies shouldn’t start and end with school, but stretch from birth through to work — and beyond.
5) More work for Alan Milburn. No surprise that the report name-checks Alan Milburn, the coalition’s "social mobility tsar". But the extent to which it leans on his work,
and the work he is yet to complete, is still fairly striking. Not only will he continue to produce an annual report on social mobility for the reading pleasure of parliamentarians, but he will also
"add child poverty to his remit with immediate effect," and temporarily head a new "Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission". There’s one Blairite who won’t be struggling
for work, unpaid or otherwise, in the next few years.