Doreen Massey on concerns that Covid-19 may impact further on the UK's already poor progress on social mobility
I recently re-read Alan Milburn’s letter of resignation as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission back in December 2017. He spoke movingly of respect for colleagues but stated that the government was “unable to commit to the social mobility challenge” while highting how whole communities were being left behind.
As a society, we are now challenged by Covid-19, both in the initial distress it caused and in the severe economic and social upheaval that has followed. So, can the government maintain its the commitment to social mobility?
Attempts to redress social mobility were failing long before the current crisis but the pandemic is likely to intensify that failure without determined and sustained policies. Research indicates that the already high (and rising) levels of child poverty in the UK will increase further due to the impact of the pandemic. And the emergency measures suggested by charities keen to hit this on the head include making temporary benefits permanent and raising child benefit.
Under pressure, the government has agreed to make free school meals available over the school’s summer break and given additional funding to food charities and local authorities. Yet ministers also continue to insist that the best way out of poverty is to work at a time when the opportunity to do so has become much more difficult.
Social mobility, rather than improving, has been in decline for years. There are powerful regional differences, with many people in the north of England feeling their chances of getting on in life are lower than those in London and the south east. Inequalities start to show early in relation to expectations, confidence in learning and social skills – and this is powerfully influenced by other factors.
Only 5% of children eligible for free school meals go to study at a top class university; 60% of those who grew up with professional parents are themselves in are in professional jobs, with many also from among the mere 7% of the population who went to private schools. Alongside this, people from disadvantaged areas face higher levels of unemployment, are more likely to suffer from poorer health and well-being, do less exercise, and have worse diets. Gender and ethnicity also matter, with women from working class backgrounds paid 35% less than men from more affluent backgrounds; and second generation BAME Britons facing substantially greater risks of unemployment than white people with similar class origins.
Education is the key and while early years are particularly significant, each subsequent phase is also important. A House of Lords Select Committee, in the 2015-16 parliamentary session, produced the report ‘Overlooked and Left Behind’ on the transition from school to work and the recommendations are still relevant. Young people need coherent transition systems and support from professionals. Policy fragmentation hinders progress and clarity.
Empowering children and young people are vital to breaking the deadlock on social mobility and engaging them in their own futures is essential. Examples of this are provided by the Commission’s mentoring of young people, the Amos Bursary’s drive on helping young black boys to succeed, and numerous other examples. But an at times panicked response to Covid-19 risks the neglect of such strategies.
More widely, the government’s inept handling of the pandemic could end up devastating the lives of many children in the UK. There has been confusion and dereliction over school closures. A lack of computer equipment for many of those being home schooled. Increased domestic abuse and violence in the home – whether aimed at or witnessed by children. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is now no consistent plan to make up for the loss of academic, social and leisure interactions during the long summer holiday that has just begun.
It is not, however, too late and before Parliament rises the government should urgently outline a coherent strategy – led by a senior minister – for helping children, particularly the most vulnerable, enhance their mental, physical, and social health, and catch up on their lost time in class.
Baroness Doreen E Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer
Published 19th July 2020