One of the fascinating things I have discovered since joining the Lib Dem group in the Lords last year is the profusion of all party groups in Parliament on virtually every subject under the sun. There are quite simply hundreds of them including some pretty bizarre ones ! About a year ago I decided to join the cross party group on social mobility – a key interest of mine since my time in central government as the Head of the Social Exclusion Unit. On Tuesday we launched our first report at a packed event in hosted by the Policy Exchange. It was an unusual line up. Damien Hinds, the Conservative MP who has chaired the group, Hazel Blears and myself.
Our central message was that much of a young person’s chance of a good job or university place is shaped long before age 16 or 18. Therefore the drive to equalise opportunities for those who don’t enjoy the privileges of a private education – ie the vast majority of us – or can’t access the best state schools need to begin well before school starts.
The group was established to look at why social mobility in Britain is low by international standards and has not greatly improved despite successive governments’ efforts. The report called, Seven Key Truths About Social Mobility, brings together findings from a range of other studies, to draw out the most important challenges for policy-makers.
The SEVEN KEY TRUTHS identified are:
- The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 0 and 3, primarily in the home
- You can also break the cycle through education…
- …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching
- But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
- University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
- But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
- Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain
The full report can be found at www.appg-socialmobility.org
Much attention has been given to the fact that a fifth of places offered by elite universities go to the privately educated, though only 7% of the population go to fee-paying schools. In fact the gaps between the private and state sector, and between the better off and worse off in the state sector, can be traced right back to the earliest years. The report makes clear that child’s development from zero to three is the “point of greatest leverage” for social mobility. We acknowledged that this is “difficult territory” for policy makers as it relates to parenting as well as what happens in childcare and nursery settings. But of course there is, as the report says, “both outstanding parenting and poor parenting in every income group and background”.
The report finds that there are multiple ways to improve social mobility throughout childhood and adolescence – both in and out of school. Particular focus needs to go on school readiness and progress in reading, having excellent teachers in schools in less affluent areas, and increasing participation of lower-income children in out-of-school activities. Successful programmes from innovative employers that can help to narrow the gap later on in life are also highlighted. A key factor at all ages is the development of emotional wellbeing, personal resilience and ‘character traits’, which the report says warrants more public policy focus. This is an area I have led on for the group. There is a emerging body of fascinating research in this field which points to the importance of young people developing the resilience that enables them to bounce back from life’s knocks and take advantage of second and third chances.
For me it’s a fundamental part of social justice that everyone should have an equal chance to get on in life. For too many people today it is still the case that their future prospects are determined by the circumstances of their birth rather than by their talents and efforts. The evidence tells us that what happens in the early years, particularly in the home, make a big difference. If we are to break out of this cycle of privilege and disadvantage, we need to shine a spotlight on the early years and provide more support to parents.
The group is new entering its really interesting phase – attempting to come up with some new policy ideas which have a wider resonance in a time of severe austerity. It will also be fascinating to see whether the current cross party consensus holds or whether we end up with dissenting reports!
* Claire Tyler, Baroness Tyler of Enfield, has been in the House of Lords since 2011, taking an active role in the areas of health and social care, welfare reform, social mobility, well-being, children and family policy, machinery of government and the voluntary sector. She is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson in the Lords on Mental Health.