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Quarterly Commentary: June 2023

Each quarter the Social Mobility Commission publishes a commentary on recent research and developments in the social mobility space.

Dear Reader,

The Social Mobility Commission has had another very busy quarter, which included:

  • The initial development of our upcoming pilot parenting campaign, which is aimed at supporting the early education of children in areas where there are high-levels of multiple deprivation.
  • A new communications Theory of Change, to support the Commission’s research activity on family and education.
  • A successful hybrid event to launch our new Data Explorer Tool which enables us to review regional analysis on social mobility, and demonstrate the importance of regional partnerships.
  • Continuing work on our 2023 State of the Nation report which will be published later this year.

In the commentary below we share some of the key research that has informed our wider thinking over the past few months.

Alun Francis

Interim Chair of the Social Mobility Commission

1. Data and measurement

Building on our Data for Social Mobility report, which looked at the challenges of collecting and using social mobility data, we have kept our eye on emerging analysis and trends. This month our Director, John Craven, spoke at The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales on the importance of data for boosting social mobility in workplaces and pointed organisations towards our guidance on measuring socio-economic diversity effectively. The Institute also encouraged firms to be more proactive in sharing data transparently, benchmarking against other firms and publishing data on the socio-economic diversity of staff. It demonstrated the myriad benefits of doing this by pointing to research from the Bridge Group.

Focusing on areas of specific interest to the Commission, data recently published by the Office for Students illustrated the importance of collecting information on students from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their peers. It showed that disadvantaged students are less likely to complete their higher education course.  Building on this data, its new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register raised a number of risks which universities must consider when devising their strategies.

Similarly, showing the importance of using data to inform policy and strategy work, the Talent Tap and Aldridge Foundation released their study on the different outcomes of students in rural vs urban areas. They found that fewer rural youngsters apply for undergraduate degrees – 19% compared to 39% from urban areas – with an even wider gap at postgraduate level. This is particularly interesting given the Commission’s renewed focus on looking into regional disparities. For further analysis, this paper from Harvard on tackling regional economic inequality offers a good summary of the UK’s economic geography.

2. Education and Families

The education space has been busy, with notable reports from the Sutton Trust on the role of tutoring and the Centre for Social Justice on persistent post-pandemic school absences.

In addition, the Children’s Commissioner released a Local Numeracy Data Dashboard which allows parents and children to access support resources for improving their everyday maths skills. The announcement came as the UK Numeracy Index reported that half of the working-age population have only the expected numeracy level of a primary school child.  This suggests that more attention should be given to improving adult numeracy in order to benefit disadvantaged families and boost social mobility.

As time passes since the pandemic, we have learnt more about the impact of Covid-19 on learning. This quarter, the Education Policy Institute released more data on ‘education recovery’ amongst school pupils. They found that the gap in reading outcomes between pupils in primary schools with the highest levels of socioeconomic disadvantage compared to those with the lowest is about 6 percent wider than it was at the start of the pandemic. This suggests that pupils in disadvantaged areas have suffered bigger adverse learning effects than those in more affluent areas. Findings like these show the importance of tackling regional disparities early to break the cycle of social immobility.

For older children, COSMO has revealed worrying links between poverty, mental health and GCSE grades. They have shown that food bank use is associated with lower GCSE results and that 82% of parents (and more than half of young people) in financially struggling families report poor mental health. They use these findings to indicate that the effects of long-term disadvantage perpetuate low educational attainment.

In more positive findings, the reading ability of children in England compared to other nations has improved in recent years. The literacy of nine and ten year olds was ranked fourth in the world, up from joint eighth place previously. Primary school teachers in England should be particularly proud of the results, but we must ensure that we keep on looking at ways to improve the reading skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds – including by investing in the home learning environment of young children and their families. The importance of this is demonstrated in this paper from the Sutton Trust, published earlier this year.

3. Employment and routes to work

In terms of research, Covid Jobs Research UK, has released a snapshot of the UK Labour Market post-pandemic. It found that while some public sector employment has surged, almost every other sector has fewer workers today than before Covid-19. It also found that the economy has only recovered around 2/3rds of the employment losses from the depths of the recession, which means more people are inactive than before. Manufacturing, retail, and construction have had big hits to jobs and the number of apprenticeships available to school leavers have also dropped and not recovered.

Emerging research from the Resolution Foundation has also shown a sharp increase in the number of young people who are not working due to ill health. The number of 18-24-year-olds in this category has near-doubled in the last ten years, meaning almost one-in-four workless young people are not working because of ill health, up from less than one-in-ten in 2012. It is particularly striking that young people are most likely to be workless due to ill health if they live in small towns or villages, such as Derbyshire or Devon, while those living in core cities, such as London or Liverpool, are the least likely.

Turning to routes to work, The Talent Tap has released a four point social mobility checklist for businesses, charities and other organisations to set young people up for work. It highlights the need to support young people in rural areas and to invest in developing communication skills and preparing young people for networking. The Commission is also interested in understanding the links between location, economy and enterprise and how this impacts social mobility. We have been working with policy experts and academics this year on this issue and it will form a large part of our State of the Nation 2023 report later this year.

4. Keep in touch

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