Social Mobility Commission: another one bites the dust

The chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, resigned at the end of last week in the latest episode of an increasingly dysfunctional organisation. She follows in the footsteps of other chairs who gave up and resigned when they felt nothing was improving. This is unsurprising since the commission has repeatedly failed to look at inequality as a major driver in poor social mobility. Her resignation must trigger a more critical look at the commission and the paucity of resources it has endured.  A return to the idea of social justice and equality would be a good start.

Hiding behind the main headlines last week was the sudden resignation of Katharine Birbalsingh, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission. She is replaced by Alun Francis, Principal of Oldham College, who was already well embedded in the commission as its deputy chair. Katherine was appointed to the position back in November 2021 as the no-nonsense founder and head of free school, Michaela Community School. A graduate of Oxford in French and Philosophy, she has gained the reputation as the strictest head of a school considered outstanding by Ofsted. Her views are well aligned with that of the right of the Conservative party, and she has been outspoken and decidedly anti ‘woke’ in the past.   She outlined in some detail her reasons for resigning in Schoolsweek with, ‘Why I’m leaving the social mobility commission’, citing that her impartiality was in question. But this was surely evident from when she was appointed. Her conclusion upon resigning was, “On balance, I am doing the social mobility commission more harm than good”. However, many will assume that she baled out before she was pushed as the direction of the commission appeared to become more entangled with a divisive government strategy that is set to reform post-16 qualifications and deflect many of the least advantaged from the route to university.

Last August TEFS argued that the phasing out of BTecs and the introduction of T-levels would deter many from aspiring to a university education. The introduction of a binary divide into a T-level route exclusive of the academic A-level route would achieve this. See TEFS ‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social engineering’.

One key mistake.

This appears to have sealed her fate. As she aligned with government education policy.  Although appointed at the end of 2021, her first speech was to the Policy Exchange in June 2022.  There she tried to redefine what social mobility should be considered as. In ‘Bucking the trend: a fresh approach to social mobility’ she called for a “radical shift in how the UK views social mobility”.

Although some news media outlets reported that she was saying, ‘“Working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxford”, TEFS noted at the time that she had not said this. However, her approach to redefining Social Mobility opened up the strong suspicion that this was the agenda.

Redefining Social Mobility.

Setting aside a paucity of resources and support from the government, one of the underlying problems for the commission appears to be in defining ‘social mobility’. Milburn II was not sure what it was at an Education Committee hearing in 2019 noted below.

However, this is a general problem across all of society and many have a misunderstanding of what social mobility means and how it might be defined. It was into this confusion that led Birbalsingh to offer her idea that, “It will require us to start thinking differently – about how we define social mobility, measure it and assess it”.  The lack of clarity was all too evident as an attempt was made to water down what it might mean.  This was reflected in the Social Mobility Commission Business Plan 2022 to 2023: A fresh approach to social mobility’  that emerged in October 2022. It was confusing and offered little real clarity with “Firstly, it is essential that we establish some discipline about how the term social mobility is used and how social mobility is measured. We want to move away from a narrow focus on ‘long’ upward mobility, moving a few from the ‘bottom’ into the ‘top’, to a broader view of different kinds of social mobility, sometimes over shorter distances, for a greater number of people”.

Then there was a nod to the direction the government was taking with, “We’ll also work with the Department for Education to build engagement and advocacy with employers around the new T Level qualifications, with our Deputy Chair Alun Francis playing an active role as a T Level Ambassador”.  This made a formal link and  dovetailed well with the government’s aim divide society into the A-level/University elite and the T-level/Technical college.  The smell of government interference was in the air.

Defining Social Mobility.

There are two main approaches to the problem as outlined by TEFS in May 2018 with, ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’.

Firstly, there is the ‘Sociologists Tale’. The somewhat archaic and parochial classification of upper, middle, and lower classes seems to persist in the UK. This is despite government and social scientists alike defining social mobility as moving between the different socioeconomic classes (SEC) 1-7. On the face of it, social scientists and government often define social mobility as people moving between the SEC groups over at least two generations. This may be swift enough to happen in the lifetime of an individual, but it is more often a change that happens across generations of families.

Secondly, there is he ‘Economists Tale’. This approach is simply to look instead at rises and falls in intergenerational earnings. This asks the basic question: Do children go onto earn more than their parents? It is the measure most often used to make comparisons between various countries. 

Both approaches are used and often mingled in a way that clouds the issues. However, income mobility is something that everyone can understand as its simple and translates into access to better resources from generation to generation. It is the basis of international comparisons and allows the UK to see how it is doing in relation to other advanced economies. This may be uncomfortable to some, but it’s transparent.

Looking elsewhere.

In the past, the Social Mobility Commission has failed to acknowledge definitions and input from organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, its latest ‘State of the Nation 2022: A fresh approach to social mobility report from July 2022 does include reference to this important source of comparison, albeit with a positive spin using data as far back as 2010 and 2018.  Emphasis was placed on comparative education measures that do show the UK in a positive light. This deployed the data from the OECD’s ‘PISA 2018 results’ that, “measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.”

Recent outputs from the OECD in November 2022 might be better at gauging the direction of travel in the UK. With ‘Current challenges to social mobility and equality of opportunity’ where they introduced their ‘Observatory on Social Mobility and Equal Opportunity. That will follow how the UK emerges from the pandemic and economic crisis. Don’t hold your breath.

Other important drivers.

Missing from the Social Mobility Commission’s observations is acknowledgement of other factors that drive social mobility. Principally, there is the clear link to wealth distribution as a driver. This is measured by the so called ‘Gini coefficient’.  This is a number that shows how a country’s wealth distribution deviates from totally equal distribution of productivity. It can be expressed on a scale of 0 to 1.0 or 0 to 100%. Either way a score of 0 means complete equality and 1.0 (or 100%) means complete inequality (see TEFS 4th May 2018 ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’).  The strong relationship between inequality and less social mobility across the generations was first described by Miles Corek in 2013 in, ‘Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility’.  The House of Commons Library produced a lucid report in 2021, ‘Income inequality in the UK’, that concluded the UK had been drifting towards greater inequality for decades.

It follows that the main solution to the problem must involve promoting greater income equality. However, this is steadfastly avoided and perhaps underpins why the commission is bound to fail. The Social Mobility Commission might put greater emphasis upon this, other that simply accepting it exists.

Chequered history of the Social Mobility Commission.

TEFS has been very critical of the Social Mobility Commission in the past, so it is with sadness that it comes under scrutiny again for the wrong reasons (see FOOTNOTE).

The Commission goes back some years and has its roots in the Child Poverty Act 2010, and latterly the Welfare Reform Act 2012 ‘Life Chances’ and Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. Originally called the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, it changed emphasis later to become ‘The Social Mobility Commission’.

It got off to a fair start under chair Alan Milburn (I). However a lack of resources and pressure on the commission led to the chair and entire board resigning in 2017 .  The task was simply much greater than the meagre resources offered. It was starved out of existence and a failure to come up to its planned complement.

It took until July 2018 for new chair, and namesake but not related, Martina Milburn (II) to take the helm of a new administration.

Milburn II two lasted as far as April 2020 before she resigned after coming under similar pressures. Her evidence to the Education Committee  under Robert Halfon in June 2019 turned out to be a ‘train crash’ interview in which she had little grasp of what was going on. She started off by stating that, “the government weren’t happy because social mobility hadn’t improved and the opposition weren’t happy because it hadn’t got worse”. Her lack of impartiality was laid bare at the start and she was forced to apologise after a stern repost from committee member James Frith calling the remark “crass” and “I don’t think that sets any kind of positive intent to start constructive dialogue early on”. Milburn had only met with the Education Secretary once and seemed unconcerned about that.  Transparency also was clearly in doubt when it emerged that the commission’s minutes had not been released. It turns out some were released the day before in a thinly veiled attempt to cover their tracks. As an aside, the current commission’s minutes appear to have stopped in September 2021. As for a £2 million ‘research’ budget, there was little explanation about where it was going. TEFS had already observed ( by searching ‘Social Mobility Commission’ on the government’s Contracts Finder Site) that a call for five projects was published on the site by Friday 26th April 2019. However, the closing date for each was Friday 3rd of May 2019. This was such a short deadline that no serious contender could respond effectively.

Social Justice and equality.

Before the appointment of Milburn II, the Commons Education Committee sought to establish a ‘Social Justice Commission’.  After reporting in detail ‘The future of the Social Mobility Commission’, a draft ‘Social Justice Bill’ was proposed. It would enlarge the commission and expand its remit and powers. Later that year Labour was fully backing the idea. Unfortunately, a swift response from the government poured cold water onto the plan and snuffed it out quickly. This would have been a game changer as it sought to assess the impact of initiatives and legislation across many government departments. With Robert Halfon moving from his position as chair of the Education Committee to Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, we might expect to see a shift back to this idea. Of course, he could soon find he has ‘gone native’ and now follows the party line. Some move to establish greater equality might not go amiss.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

*FOOTNOTE Past TEFS articles on Social Mobility and the Commission.

Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’.
December 03, 2017

Social Mobility and the Economy: Another debate, plea and a pledge.
March 30, 2018

Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?
May 24, 2018

Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid.
May 04, 2018

Social Mobility, Higher Education and Driving with the Handbrake on.
July 20, 2018

Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures?: The progress in ten years.
August 03, 2018

Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?
March 22, 2019

Social Mobility Commission – “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
April 12, 2019

The Social Mobility Commission gets out of first gear and gets mobile.
April 30, 2019

Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill
June 08, 2019

Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows

June 18, 2019

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