Baroness Tyler writes… To improve social mobility, we need to shine a spotlight on early years

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:

  1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 0 and 3, primarily in the home
  2. You can also break the cycle through education…
  3. …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching
  4. But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
  5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
  6. But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
  7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

The full report can be found at

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 member of the Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, and co-chair of the APPG on Social Mobility

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  • The APPG report specifically mentions my colleague Chris Paterson’s excellent report on early years: It is well worth reading.

  • Very worthwhile article , thanks. The book ‘The Spririt level’ is an eye opener. Sadly the funding for sure start has been removed from the ring fence and some areas are suffering cuts. In Hampshire we have experience of children of 3 still in nappies which concerns me. Language in early years has also been identified as a priority.

  • Simon McGrath 7th May '12 - 9:59am

    Interesting stuff. But how far should the state go in interfering how parents bring up their children.

    incidentally the 7% figure is misleading – around 14% of children attend indepent schools in the 6th form.

    @geoffrey – you must be one of the fee people who hasn’t hard the Sprit level has been debunked. Most of the data is hand picked to support the conclusions the authors want.

  • Simon McGrath 7th May '12 - 3:39pm

    @geoffrey – which bits of the Policy Exchange criticism do you disagree with ?

  • Stephen Gorard 8th May '12 - 9:48am

    There is a serious error in the underlying research used by OECD and so by the all-party committee. Blanden et al. (2005) are the primary source for UK data for d’Addio (2007) who is in turn the OECD source for that alarming graph of relative intergenerational mobility. ‘Chinese’ whispers of the worst kind. Blanden et al used the wrong years, comparing 1970 data for GB with 1958 data for Norway (for example) in the same paper in which they claimed 1970 in UK was worse than 1958! They had the 1958 cohort data but did not use it, because it shows a much better picture for UK. Even so, the difference between 1958 and 1970 is around 9 cases out of 16,000 in an unexpected cell. It is nothing. The authors know this but have not retracted. They are misleading users. Policy will be mis-directed and money wasted. Wake up now.

  • The key problem I have with Claire’s pitch is that it was known in the late 1990’s that the key period in a child’s development was pre-birth through to pre-school. Whilst New Labour made much of education etc. it actually delivered very little especially for babies and toddlers and so have perpetuated much of the problem. So the need now is to not so much to shone a spotlight but to actually get on the ground and make a difference.

    To me it is obvious that for any policy to stand a chance of working, it needs to start with the mother-to-be (and ideally father/partner-to-be) and work forwards, supporting and encouraging then as their baby/child progresses; remember a key component of any child development strategy is parent learning and development. It is also obvious that any government intervention at this level also needs to be largely through and in support of the existing parenting groups and classes, because: they already exist, they are motivated to make a difference in their community, they are addressing identified needs, they have the expertise. Additionally, this would help ensure that government monies directly reach and benefit the child (and parent/carer).

    Additionally, we need to change the way parents get access to (child health and development) professionals. I suggest a major factor in why we have so many children entering school who are ‘behind’ is in part because it has been made difficult for parents to gain access to relevant professionals. The need is to make professionals readily accessible by getting them out in the community, regularly visiting various parenting groups, making access to their expertise simple and straight-forward (ie. bring the professional to the parent rather than the parent having to go on a quest to find the professional), so that children in need of assistance can be identified sooner (and an over-protective parent re-assured sooner) and hence have their needs addressed sooner.

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