Social mobility is a complex topic, so to summarise this post briefly: Crawley has been rated poorly on social mobility by a Government Commission, most of which comes down to indicators revealing the disadvantages faced by young people locally in accessing education at school or after school and which fall within the remit of West Sussex County Council and the Department for Education. While we can argue over whether this is a good way to assess social mobility and who exactly is to blame, it’s clearly a problem, one we’re already working to address and as a result of yesterday’s report we’re now taking further steps.
Crawley was in the papers yesterday and the news wasn’t good. The latest State of the Nation report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission is out and of 324 lower-tier council areas we’re rated the 21st least socially mobile, making us the poorest performer in the South East. While this isn’t the lowest we’ve ever been rated on social mobility, that comes as little comfort.
For those unfamiliar with the term, social mobility is the extent to which people are able to move away from the economic circumstances of their birth. As a socialist, I find the idea that someone’s life chances might be capped by those of their parents utterly repugnant. That said, while social mobility is an essential part of a good society, it cannot be the end goal. It is not enough for us to enable bright working class kids get the ‘good jobs’, rather everyone should be able to access meaningful work with good pay and decent working conditions. In debates around social mobility we mustn’t lose sight of that.
Having studied research methods, it goes against my instincts to take any report at face value, particularly one on an issue as complicated as social mobility. So, the question which immediately arises is: how are they assessing social mobility? Historically, this has tended to be done by looking at a ‘man’ and comparing his job to that of his father at a certain age (e.g. 35), with more men having similar jobs to those of their fathers indicates lower social mobility. There are quite a few issues with this. To begin with, it’s predicated on a number of cultural norms around economic activity which are no longer the case, such as gender, the very different nature of labour markets compared to even a decade ago and the idea that someone’s economic conditions are dictated solely by their job. Secondly, in putting together their index the commission undertook no primary research, meaning that they relied upon surveys and studies which had already been created and since no one has undertaken cohort studies in each of the 324 areas they were focusing on, there simply wasn’t any way of using this method to assess social mobility.
Instead, the commission have been forced to try to assemble a picture from data the government already has to make, making assumptions around which elements determine social mobility. In other words, your area’s rating doesn’t reflect an actual measurement of social mobility, but instead measurement of those things the commission assumes determine social mobility. Fortunately, and this is something the commission really should be applauded on and others should follow, they have published their dataset online with the report, so we can see for ourselves how they’ve assembled their index.
The commission have used sixteen indicators, grouped into four general areas of social mobility: early years, schools, youth and adulthood. Each area is weighted 25% of the final figure and each indicator is given an equal weighting within their area. This does seem a little odd. The goal here is to determine the ability of people to end up in economic circumstances different to those of their birth, yet 75% of the result is made up of indicators about things which we might assume help people to get on in life but which we don’t know for certain, while only 25% of the result comes from the actual economic circumstances they live in as an adult. Furthermore, as there are only two indicators featured in the ‘early years’ classification each carries 12.5% of the final result, while having five adulthood indicators means that they represent only 5% of the end result each. In practical terms, this means that Ofsted’s rating of nursery providers in an area has two and a half times more of an impact upon your social mobility rating than the percentage of people in managerial or professional jobs.
So, does Crawley have a problem with social mobility? Well, probably, but that comes more from instinct than the commission’s data. The index is certainly open to debate and I can point to research from organisations like the Centre for Cities which highlight that in comparative terms Crawley’s population is doing fairly well around economic disadvantage, largely based on our exceptional levels of job density.
In fact, the Social Mobility Commission’s indicators place Crawley just below the top third on early years and about average for adulthood (we do well on wages, but badly on house prices and numbers of managers/professionals). Where we are falling down is on the educational performance of young people eligible for free school meals. Free school meals are traditionally used in social research as an indicator for those with a low household income. Even this is open to some question though, as reconciliation of benefits data for Crawley Borough Council’s Financial Deprivation Scrutiny Panel a few years ago highlighted that around half of eligible families don’t claim their free school meals, we simply have to hope that the eligible families who do/do not claim between the 324 authorities which are being compared bear largely similar traits. On educational performance, there is also a clear assumption here that academic success will in general result in increased social mobility. Given that most jobs require some form of qualifications, it’s not an unreasonable assumption although, as a generation of underemployed graduates will confirm, it doesn’t have the same scale of impact that it once did.
Nonetheless, Crawley is placed 319 out of 324 authorities on those educational indicators, which is utterly appalling. We know that local schools are struggling for funding, but the same is true across the UK and changes to the national funding formula were supposed to give a relative boost to their incomes, even if they continued to suffer cuts in real terms. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the indicators are focused on the performance of children from low income households and in comparison to other local authority areas, the overall performance of schools is only indirectly relevant. The issue here isn’t the money in the local system, it is how well that system is geared up for tackling the needs of the economically disadvantaged.
Looking through the ‘coldspots’ identified by the commission, something interesting does leap out. Very few of the poor performers are unitary authorities (i.e. have control over functions like Education), the vast majority are in fact district-level authorities (with a relatively poorer population) situated within Conservative-controlled county councils, such as in Crawley’s case where Education is in the hands of West Sussex County Council. Had the data been put together on the basis of the local Education Authority much of the disadvantage might well have been masked by the performance of our wealthier neighbours.
To be fair, of the 324 local authority areas the majority of them are going to be districts located in Conservative counties by virtue of the fact that while Labour performs better at unitary level, the Conservatives tend to do better at county level and district authorities are smaller and consequently more numerous. However, look at the ‘hotspots’ identified and you’ll see a combination of Labour-controlled unitaries and the wealthiest Conservative-controlled districts. This is not what you’d expect if the pattern was entirely random. What we appear to have is a situation where Conservative county councils are failing to address social mobility within their pockets of relative economic disadvantage.
Sadly this isn’t news, it is well-known that while there might be more economically disadvantaged communities in other parts of the UK, due to their concentrations of disadvantage these communities tend to have created support systems to help deal with the issues it creates. Whereas, wealthier communities still have large numbers of the economically disadvantaged but because it is less in proportional terms (interestingly, the South East in total has more people in poverty than in the whole of the North of England, but our population is higher so it’s less noticeable) the community never gears up to tackle the issues in quite the same way, meaning that you are worse off being poor in a wealthier community than poor in a poorer community.
In putting together our 2014 Crawley Borough Council Manifesto, the programme on which we regained control of the council, we thought about the impact that Tory-enforced austerity was having on state support and consequently how best to enable people to survive in the face of cutbacks. In the end this boiled down to three things: making housing more affordable, helping people to secure better-paying work and seeing if we could develop community-based support systems. By focusing the council’s limited resources on these three things which increased the economic resilience of households we hoped that we could ensure people’s needs were met until such a time as another Labour Government came to office. Unfortunately, that appears to be taking longer than we’d hoped.
Nonetheless, we’re on course to deliver 103% of the target we set ourselves on affordable housing, which should help to address two of the commission’s indicators and we’ve managed to maintain and develop local community structures, although not to the extent that I’d have liked.
What was more interesting in the context of social mobility was the work which went into trying to help people to access better paying employment. As part of that work, Cllr Peter Smith, Cabinet Member for Planning and Economic Development, and I visited a number of local businesses and schools to discuss with them the challenges and opportunities involved in tackling local economic disadvantage. Out of these conversations and further research, the council put together its first Jobs and Skills Plan with the express purpose of helping local residents to access better job opportunities and containing a number of major projects designed to do exactly that.
I believe that we’re making headway on social mobility , but while it is a mistake to fixate purely on one or two indicators at the cost of the broader picture, there are areas–particularly around education–where further action is clearly needed. So what is to be done?
In their report the Social Mobility Commission have made a number of recommendations, the ones which apply to local authorities being:
• Every local authority should develop an integrated strategy for improving disadvantaged children’s outcomes. This should include:
− quality improvement support for early education settings, including collaborative working groups, tailored advice and comprehensive training for early years teachers
− driving uptake of the early education offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds and ensuring that they do not lose places to children eligible for the 30-hour offer
− ensuring that all parenting support programmes are evidence based and experimenting with ways to offer effective advice to more parents.
• Early education and childcare providers should invest pupil premium funds in evidence-based practice using the Early Education Foundation’s toolkit.
• Local government should develop a new deal with employers and educators for inclusive employment, based on jointly agreed local social mobility action plans, using the Social Mobility Employer Index as a framework for employer action.
• Local government should support and incentivise accredited voluntary living wage employers and ensure that the local council is also accredited.
• Combined authority mayors and local government leaders should put social mobility at the heart of economic and educational development and take coordinated action to tackle the social mobility challenges of their areas by each developing a ten-year social mobility strategy with clear progress measures.
• This should include a focus on improving transport links to social mobility hotspots in rural and coastal areas.
• Schools should work with local employers to meet the key Gatsby careers support benchmarks (a set of critical careers support requirements based on international standards) and to ensure that all young people are well prepared for work.
• Local government should develop shorter-term action plans with employers, educators, universities and other key local stakeholders to improve opportunities for local disadvantaged people.
Some of these recommendations (e.g. promoting the Living Wage) the council is already acting upon, others are outside our immediate control (e.g. Education and Transport) and the remaining ones merit serious consideration.
Rather than kicking this into the long-grass or haggling over responsibilities, I believe that this report is a call to action and I have this morning written to the Chair of Crawley Borough Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Commission to request that a scrutiny panel be set up to immediately assess the state of social mobility in the borough and to identify the practical steps which must now be taken locally to get us back on the right track. It is unacceptable that the life chances of so many children are dictated by the circumstances of our birth. In Crawley, we’re going to do something about it.
For a copy of the State of the Nation 2017 report, please visit: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-of-the-nation-2017
For the relevant dataset, please go to: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-index-2017-data