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Here’s how Theresa May can show she is still serious about social mobility

4 December 2017

2:04 PM

4 December 2017

2:04 PM

As someone who cares about – and has experienced – social mobility, I’m sad to see Alan Milburn, Gillian Shephard and their colleagues leave the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), and I hope Theresa May is serious about finding the best possible ‘new blood’ for the commission. I have a few suggestions for who should try to fill Alan’s shoes (Sir Terry Leahy would be a good start), though obviously ministers will have to work hard to assure any new commissioners that the ‘bandwidth’ needed to make Britain more socially mobile will actually be available in a Brexit-fixated Whitehall machine. Before ministers even start trying to rebuild the SMC, they should do something that would make the commission worth the time of serious applicants, and an organisation that could, just, do some good. They should move it. The SMC is in the wrong place. It’s currently based in the Department for Education (DFE). That might sound sensible, but it’s not.  

First, the DFE shouldn’t need a Social Mobility Commission. It should be a social mobility department. You wouldn’t put a business development commission in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy: that’s what the department is forAnd to be fair to Justine Greening, that’s what she’s tried to do at DFE; as the first education secretary who went to a comprehensive secondary school (yes, you read that right), she gets this stuff and she’s reconfigured her department to focus properly on social mobility issues. But that just illustrates the second reason the SMC shouldn’t be in the education department: social mobility isn’t really about schools, or even education. 

Of course poor kids should have schools that are as good as rich ones, but the stuff that stops poor kids becoming rich adults isn’t all in the classroom. Here are a few: ambition and aspiration. Parental support and knowledge. ‘Social capital’ (Do you know people who go to posh universities or have a posh job? Do you know how to look and act like you might too?). Employers’ willingness to look beyond a narrow CV: the big accountancy and law firms no longer look at A-level results and some do ‘cv-blind’ interviews. But not enough employers are following the good examples of PWC and Clifford Chance, and the premium professions (medicine and the Bar especially) remain the preserve of middle-class entrants. (I can’t pass over the media and social mobility. Of course the industry needs to do much, much better, but there are good examples, and not just The Spectator’s. Newspaper groups, including my former employers at the Telegraph, are now offering apprenticeships and reaching well beyond the usual recruitment pool of public school-Oxbridge types – they hired an oik like me, after all.)

None of this can be solved solely by better schools or better teaching, needed though they are. This is a bigger, longer problem that needs action across the board, driven from the centre of government. 

Without that, we’ll just get more failure. The DFE is trying to put together a new Social Mobility Strategy but there’s a hard limit on what it can even hope to achieve because a schools department can’t reach beyond the education sector to take the necessary look at employers, families, public health, transport (social mobility is worst in seaside towns with awful public transport) and even British popular culture.

If you’re a white working class school-leaver, where are the professional role models? Where are the lawyers, doctors, admissions tutors and politicians who look and sound like you? The only people you see on TV who are anything like you are footballers and stupid celebrities – and Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary who scares the wits out of any Tory with a brain. All these things are too big and too broad for the education department to tackle. They need leadership, from the top. So it matters less who replaces Alan Milburn than where they work. If Mrs May really does want to make good on her words about social mobility, the SMC should move to the Cabinet Office and report directly to her.

Disclosure: Gillian Shephard is a trustee of the Social Market Foundation, where I am director, so she is, in part, my boss. But honestly, I’d say nice things about her anyway, because she’s great.

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