What does the new Government mean by 'social mobility'?

Party conferences were a great opportunity to dig beneath the headlines and explore what politicians really mean. What did we learn about the new Government’s view of social mobility?

During the weekend before Conservative Party Conference, the headlines were dominated by Brexit.  But the thousands of delegates did manage to focus on other issues. Amongst them, and featuring in Theresa May’s first flagship conference speech, was ‘social mobility’.


Life chances to social mobility

Justine Greening gave her first major speech as Education Secretary offering some important insights into the Government’s thinking on topics from schools to careers prospects.

Noticeably, after being a cornerstone of public announcements from ministers for months, ‘life chances’ as a concept seems to have departed along with David Cameron. Social mobility, fairness and ‘levelling up’ are now front and centre of government thinking.

Helping children from more disadvantaged backgrounds get on was a theme that stood out. It was mentioned as a key driver for the reintroduction of grammar schools and greater collaboration between local businesses and schools in deprived areas. To make progress, social mobility ‘cold spots’ identified by the Social Mobility Commission are set to get additional resources. 

Away from the main hall, in the fringe events that take place around the conference, the idea of ‘life chances’ still had a lot of currency and was used interchangeably with ‘social mobility’. The grammar schools policy was widely dismissed as a distraction, but the early years highlighted as a vital area. Delegates had also seized on the idea of those families who were ‘just about managing’, an idea that, again, was used interchangeably with ‘the most disadvantaged’. The result was more enthusiasm than laser-sharp thinking, but that is where movements for change begin.

"Parents in lower socio-economic groups are able to spend, on average, 40 minutes a day less on activities like playing and reading than more affluent parents - that’s the equivalent of 200 primary school days before the age of five."

What about the early years?

It was heartening to see the Secretary of State identify her job as making sure that today's children, whatever their background, get the best start. We would argue there isn’t a more important job in government.

Listening to the speech you might be forgiven for wondering how they are going to achieve this. There were a few mentions of early education to demonstrate what the Government has already done, but little more.

So many of the essential life skills we rely on daily – ranging from communication through to emotional awareness – begin to develop before a child reaches the classroom. There is scope for the Government to do far more to help children in the first five years of their lives.

Many delegates agreed passionately with this assertion. Yes, it’s all about early intervention! Yes, we must do more to support children and families during those crucial early years! Yes, we should seize the nettle and talk about improving children’s home environment! When the conversation turned to how such support might be delivered in the face of falling public investment, brows became furrowed. But we can work with that enthusiasm and look forward to developing solutions in partnership with both national and local politicians.


A new plan to support parenting in the early years

At Action for Children we see every day just how important parents are in shaping their child’s early development. What happens at home has a huge influence on development before a child reaches school. It can positively influence educational attainment at secondary school, and thus a child’s future prospects and chance of earning more.

Sadly, there are big differences in the home environment between children from different backgrounds.

We know that parents in lower socio-economic groups are able to spend, on average, 40 minutes a day less on developmental activities like playing and reading than more affluent parents (a gap that has increased since the 1970s). That’s the equivalent of 200 primary school days before the age of five.

This is worthy of greater attention from a Government so focused on social mobility and helping children get on in life. If the Prime Minister is serious about building a country that works for everyone, not just a few, parenting and what happens at home can’t be overlooked.


On the 23rd March 2017, MPs are debating the importance of social mobility in Parliament. We need to keep the pressure on Government to fulfill it's commitments, so please email your MP asking them to attend the debate. 

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