The independent body’s analysis of 20 years of Government policies aimed at closing the gap said that ‘too little’ has been done to break the link between an individual’s background and social progress, and that without radical reform it will take decades for divisions in education and employment to narrow.
The in-depth report ‘Time for Change’ examines the impact of public policy by successive Governments between 1997 and 2017 in four areas: early years, schools, young people, and work.
Early years and schools receive an amber warning in the traffic light system the report uses to score different policies’ success rates, while young people and work are awarded red.
Launching the report, Labour MP Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said that what was ‘so striking’ about the analysis was how divided the country had become, with a new geographical divide, and that new income and generational divides have opened up.
While it is ‘a welcome development’ that early years services have become a new part of the education system, ‘it is disappointing’ that despite billions invested in early years services, there has not been a greater impact on the attainment gap between poorer children and their better-off peers, the report says.
At the current rate of progress it will take 15 years before all children become ‘school ready’. It attributes the ‘slow progress’ partly to the fact that a new system was created after 1997 to tackle a long-term challenge.
‘Governments often implemented the right policies, but the pace of change created a host of delivery issues – specifically low uptake and low quality,’ the report says.
‘Today, though, early years workers, services, and organisations are better structured and better trained. If the Government shifts focus from quantity of services to both quality and take-up of services for those who need support most, there is the potential for greater returns in closing the gap.’
The report recommends that the Government take a more targeted approach to early education by focusing on raising the quality of learning for the poorest children.
‘This requires Government to increase spending on teaching for the poorest and also to reverse funding cuts for parenting programmes that support home learning. To ensure both these efforts pay off, the Government must increase demand for services by more effectively communicating the importance of early learning at home and pre-school, especially for hard-to-reach groups,’ it says.
Source: Time for Change: an assessment of Government policies on social mobility 197-2017
The report highlights the rise in child poverty in the wake of the recession, and says there is currently no prospect of an end to it. According to the analysis around four million children are now classified as poor.
On schools the report finds that there has been significant progress in reducing the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off classmates at primary school, but the gap increases substantially at secondary school. It also says that despite reforms to schools and success in improving results and raising standards, two thirds of children on free school meals do not get good GCSEs.
Mr Milburn said, 'As the general election seems to demonstrate, the public mood is sour and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind. There is a mood for change in Britain. When more and more people feel like they are losing out, social mobility matters more than ever before.'
‘For two decades, successive Governments have made the pursuit of higher levels of social mobility one of the holy grails of public policy. While there has been some progress, it has not gone far enough towards translating welcome political sentiments into positive social outcomes.'
He added, ‘If we go on like this, these divisions are set to widen, not narrow. There is a growing sense in the nation that these divisions are not sustainable, socially, economically or politically. There is hunger for change. The policies of the past have brought some progress, but many are no longer fit for purpose in our changing world. New approaches are needed if Britain is to become a fairer and more equal country.’
Chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said that a Government in denial about child poverty was a Government in denial about social mobility.
‘This is a powerful report from the Commission which demonstrates a country increasingly characterised by division and reflects the terrible toll that wave after wave of social security cuts has taken on our families and communities, she said.
‘It reads as an indictment of successive Governments’ failure to back struggling families with policies that would help them build better prospects.
‘If we are to improve life chances, we have to stop child poverty from rising. The first steps in that process should be reinstating the UK’s poverty-reduction targets and reinvesting in universal credit and tax credits for hard-up working parents who want to get on.'
'Childcare quality, not quantity'
Early years organisations welcomed the report’s focus on quality, not quantity, of childcare places.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'For far too long, childcare has been used as a political football, with all parties appearing to prioritise a short-term desire to win votes over a long-term ambition to improve children’s life chances.
'As a result, over recent years we’ve seen ill-thought-out policy after ill-thought-out policy, most of which are not only significantly underfunded, but don’t actually help those families that need the most support.
‘The Government has repeatedly stressed the need to close the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers as early as possible, but to date, this rhetoric has not been matched by sufficient action, and we are continuing to see the development of policies that benefit the more well-off over and above families that are struggling.’
He said tax-free childcare scheme was ‘completely regressive – the more money you can afford to save, the more help you get from Government – while the current eligibility criteria for the 30-hour scheme excludes children from the lowest-income families'.
Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children said, ’It’s nothing short of a scandal that in this day and age, so many of our children are falling behind in their learning from the start and left to stay behind throughout their lives.
‘We all know that unless we get education right in the early years of a child’s life, so many of them – especially the poorest – will struggle right through to their GCSEs and beyond; into the world of work and even in their relationships.
‘If we truly want to be a fair and prosperous society, we need to start at the beginning and give every child – no matter what their background – the very best start in life. This means making sure that every nursery has a qualified early years teacher to give them the confidence and education they need to prosper and excel.'
Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said, ‘This report from the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission shows that their policies will not improve social mobility in Britain. School budgets are being slashed, Sure Start Centres are being lost and there is nothing approaching a skills plan that will let us face the challenges of post-Brexit Britain.
'Theresa May’s reckless approach to our country’s future will see a generation of young people losing out. The next Labour government will ensure that wealth, power and opportunity are enjoyed by the many not the few.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, ‘Tackling social mobility is at the heart of the Government’s ambition to make Britain a country that works for everyone. There are 1.8 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, and we are delivering three million apprenticeship places, opening up access to our higher education system and investing £500 million a year into technical education.
‘However, we know that more must be done, and that’s why last year we launched our £72 million Opportunity Areas programme. This is bringing together local businesses, schools and councils in 12 social mobility “coldspots” to create better opportunities for young people.'