The Independent View: Coalition’s social mobility strategy failing

The government’s plan to improve social mobility has been dealt a series of blows over the past week. New education data show that trends towards a more ‘socially mobile’ Britain are pointing in the wrong direction.

Nick Clegg launched the government’s social mobility strategy last April, promising to ‘open the doors of opportunity’ to children from disadvantaged homes as they move into adulthood. Children from poor homes are half as likely to achieve five good GCSEs as their better off peers, and they account for less than one in a hundred Oxbridge students. Clegg rightly pointed out that this is both unfair and damaging for the competitiveness of our economy.

A key way to improve social mobility is to raise the educational achievement of children from poor backgrounds, and help more of them go to university. This goal is at the core of the government’s social mobility strategy, which sets out to narrow the huge difference in results between pupils from different social class backgrounds. People with degrees on average earn 85% more than those who leave school after GCSE, and are far more likely to work in the top professions such as law and medicine.

But recent figures from a number of different sources are all pointing in the wrong direction for improving social mobility. Most strikingly, we learned this week that applications for university courses are down 12% on this time last year, largely as a result of the rise in tuition fees. Of particular concern is the dramatic decline in mature students applying to university – which has seen a fall of over a fifth since last year. Studying later in life is often the best way of enabling people to improve their lot, especially if they have been let down by their education in childhood.

Meanwhile, eyebrows are being raised at the publication of the latest school exam data. Pupils at independent schools are three times more likely to achieve an A* grade at A-level than students from comprehensive schools. Given the top universities now require most applicants to have A* grades, it doesn’t seem likely that the gulf between the number of private and state school students getting into top universities will be closing anytime soon. This situation is likely to get worse following today’s revelation that spending on sixth form students is facing bigger cuts than other areas of the education system.

Dig into the data for GCSEs, and other worrying trends emerge. If children from disadvantaged homes are to get into top universities to study for subjects like physics or engineering, then they will have to take ‘hard’ subjects at GCSE and A-level – because it is these subjects that are preferred by admissions tutors. But only 20% of pupils in comprehensive schools took individual science GCSEs last year, with the remainder taking a ‘combined science’ course that leaves them poorly prepared to study the science subjects at A-level. This in-turn means they are less likely to go to a top university, as well as reducing the all important science base of the nation. Compare this to grammar schools – where 70% of pupils are studying individual science GCSEs – and the size of the gap that has to be closed becomes clear.

Of course going to university is not the only way to improve social mobility. There is much that can be done by employers to help open doors for young people to move straight into work, or for people to study in further education colleges. But it doesn’t look like the labour market holds many answers given its current state, with youth unemployment the highest it has been for a generation and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training about to top one million.

With all the underlying indicators pointing to reduced social mobility, action needs to be taken to both stimulate jobs for young people and improve educational achievement. IPPR is calling for a job guarantee for young people who have been out of work for more than twelve months; a strengthening of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications through much greater involvement of employers ; making the pupil premium an ‘entitlement’ to guarantee that the extra cash reaches the pupils who need it, and a school accountability framework that focuses on the progression of all children, not just those achieving grades C or above. Taken together, these actions could form the basis of a proper offer for young people, and a strategy for raising social mobility with real impact.

Jonathan Clifton is Research Fellow at IPPR.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

Read more by or more about , , , , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url for Twitter and emails.


  • Simon McGrath 28th Oct '11 - 5:02pm

    Gosh “Labour think tank in criticism of Coalition shock”

    Wouldn’t a better headline be: “Labour’s social mobility strategy failed”

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • User AvatarPaul King 13th Oct - 8:06am
    The government seems t have washed its hands of the Calais problem - focusing instead on refugees in Lebanon. But, as Tom has reported, this...
  • User AvatarEddie Sammon 13th Oct - 7:08am
    I stick my neck out by not using an anonymous name. I'm not against diplomacy, I'm just against the idea that diplomacy can solve everything....
  • User AvatarHelen Dudden 13th Oct - 6:55am
    On Daily Mail on line, two young adults had a very sad end. High on drugs, they crashed the vehicle they were in. In their...
  • User AvatarManfarang 13th Oct - 6:46am
    J C "Great to welcome Burmese MP Zayer Thaw to Holloway Neighbrhod Group and Islington Town Hall today. Released from prison 2011, elected 2012!"
  • User AvatarManfarang 13th Oct - 6:44am
    I said settlements with an S. In the end people sit round the table. Did you ever hear of the Good Friday Agreement? If you...
  • User AvatarMatthew Huntbach 13th Oct - 6:09am
    Peter Watson There was little or no indication that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem MPs were fighting to restrain rabid right-wing Tories, and whatever...
Wed 14th Oct 2015
Thu 15th Oct 2015
Fri 16th Oct 2015
Sat 17th Oct 2015
Sun 18th Oct 2015
Tue 20th Oct 2015
Thu 22nd Oct 2015
Fri 23rd Oct 2015
Sat 24th Oct 2015
Sun 25th Oct 2015
Wed 28th Oct 2015
Thu 29th Oct 2015
Mon 2nd Nov 2015
Wed 4th Nov 2015
Thu 5th Nov 2015
Fri 6th Nov 2015
Sat 7th Nov 2015