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Quarterly Commentary: September 2023

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

Dear Reader,

This September we published our State of the Nation 2023: People and Places report which looked at social mobility through the prism of protected characteristic and geography for the first time.

We found that while people who grew up near London, Manchester or Edinburgh have the best chance of getting a professional job, irrespective of their socio-economic background, those who grow up in these areas also have higher chances of unemployment, economic inactivity and lower working-class employment. Rather than a clear cut North/South divide, our data shows that the situation is more mixed, with a modern “tale of two cities” emerging, particularly in London and Manchester, as those moving up and down grow up side by side.

Alongside our report we launched our game-changing Data Explorer Tool which gives policymakers a way to make regional comparisons across a range of social mobility indicators.

In October the Commission will start its own campaign aimed at helping parents improve the school readiness of their children. The campaign will be piloted initially in Middlesbrough, Great Yarmouth and Blackpool during the autumn and winter.  Alongside it we will publish our report on Family and Parenting Programmes and two podcast episodes related to early years and Nurturing Talent, one of four themes we will focus on in the next year. The other three areas are: Growing Opportunities: Developing Skills and Talents and Better Data and Evaluation.

Alun Francis

Chair of the Social Mobility Commission


1. Data and Measurement

To start with, Society Watch 2023 was published this quarter drawing upon new measures of how the UK cost-of-living crisis has disproportionately impacted different demographic groups, their spending patterns, their mental health and what the enduring impact might be on future generations. The Sutton Trust and Resolution Foundation offered insights into the specific struggles of disadvantaged young people, emphasising the need for tailored mental health support and funding for young adults looking to get back into education.

Adding another layer to these perspectives, Onward’s ‘Social Mobility Penalty’ report exposed flaws in current local authority funding schemes. It makes the point that the Settlement Funding Assessment formula hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years meaning it disproportionately favours high-deprivation areas and neglects low-social-mobility regions. The thinktank claims that this creates a “Social Mobility Penalty” that perpetuates cycles of limited opportunity, especially amongst groups already at risk of social immobility – like those who have grown up qualifying for free school meals. Our own State of the Nation 2023: People and Places report looks into regional differences in social mobility outcomes and our Data Explorer Tool will support those looking to make place-based policy interventions.


2. Education and Families

The University of York conducted a study questioning the two-child limit to child benefit, arguing that it has worsened child poverty and disproportionately affected families from ethnic minority backgrounds. This quarter it was also reported that eligibility for free school meals in England has risen to 23.8% (2 million children). Looking at young children, Nesta released the initial findings of their pilot study which indicated considerable variation in early years practices across the 27 LAs surveyed.

For older children, GCSE and A level data was released this quarter. England reverted to its pre-pandemic grading systems for A level, AS level, and GCSE examinations. This resulted in a drop in the number of top grades awarded and we were concerned to see that the attainment gap widened both regionally and amongst disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. As such we need to ensure that there are adequate catch up options for students across the country that are still affected by learning lost during the pandemic.

This summer, VTQ results were also issued, and T Levels were fully based on formal assessments for the first time. A thematic review published by OFSTED looked closely at assessment reforms and cited mixed success in the implementation and quality of T-levels and TLTPs. It highlighted inconsistencies in student experiences and educational outcomes. Ensuring students have a range of options to set them up for their future is vital, and improving the quality of these qualifications is essential to plugging future skills gaps.

More generally, the Sutton Trust and the IFS published on the financial pressures facing state and private schools. There was also new research released on behaviour management in state schools, the future of postgraduate courses, and the impact of selective schooling on social mobility in England. Most significantly, the IFS also published a review of school effectiveness, highlighting the difficulties of making accurate measurements of progress and success.


3. Employment and Routes to Work

A number of research reports on employment and routes to work have been published in the last three months. The Fairness Foundation captured public sentiment on equal opportunities and fairness, finding that a significant majority of people in the UK are concerned about inequality.

KPMG conducted research into the role of social class and nepotism in early career opportunities, finding that young people from low socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to have gained either formal or informal work experience than the national average. We were pleased to see, however, that the Department for Education has announced a  significant investment in skills training and Higher Technical Qualifications this quarter, aimed at bridging local skills gaps and meeting labour market needs.

Looking at tacit, or ‘soft’ skills, the IFS published an interesting report on the importance of social skills, including the ability to work well in a team and communicate effectively with colleagues. It found that these ‘social skills’ are a driver for individual wage growth for workers with few formal educational qualifications.


4. Economy and Enterprise

The IFS also published a significant report on intergenerational income mobility in England this quarter. Their findings align strongly with the findings of our own State of the Nation 2023: People and Places report by highlighting huge differences in outcomes across the country. They find that children from low-income families who grew up in the lowest mobility areas are expected to end up around fifteen percentiles lower in the income distribution as adults compared to those from the highest mobility areas. They highlight that differences in average educational achievements can explain 25% of this variation in absolute mobility in men but more than 45% of the variation in women. This similarly ties with the findings of our report that women’s significant over-performance in education compared to men does not translate to better paid employment.

Looking at the economy more generally, the Centre for Policy Studies published a report on making the UK tax system fairer for families. It suggests that considering household circumstances as opposed to individual circumstances might support children and build a stronger economy. Previous reports from Policy Exchange and Onward have made similar claims.


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