13 June 2024

NextGov: Boosting social mobility

NextGov: Boosting social mobility   image
Image: CalypsoArt / Shutterstock.com.

Carl Cullinane, director of Research and Policy at the Sutton Trust, looks at what the next government should do to deliver greater social mobility.

Social mobility is a local issue. What educational services are being provided to disadvantaged children? How do local communities support struggling families? What job and training opportunities are available to young people? However, there are vast inequalities across the country driven by geography, local economies, lack of funding, and the priorities of local government. The upshot is that a person’s chances of being socially mobile vary substantially according to where they grow up.

As the manifesto published by the Sutton Trust for the next government outlines, delivering greater social mobility in the next parliament will require a transformational agenda to deliver high quality early education to children from all backgrounds, a national strategy to narrow the growing attainment gap in schools, as well as a focus on improving access to the best opportunities when young people leave school. Local government can contribute to many of these, but with budgets tighter than ever, they need greater support from central government.

Early years is a great example of this. Well over 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres have closed in the last 15 years. As national ring-fenced funding and direction for the programme stalled, centres across the country have been closed or merged leading to a patchwork of provision. The Family Hub programme of recent years has not received enough funding to truly make a mark. It is vital that the next government re-invigorates the national programme of children’s centres and Family Hubs, with a coherent strategy tying these services together, as well as new funding to roll out new facilities targeted at the most deprived areas.

One common thread across policy areas has been the targeting of funding for provision. In schools, the National Funding Formula in 2017 reduced the weighting for disadvantage, and thus funding flowed from deprived neighbourhoods to less deprived areas. This needs to swing back, as well as incorporating a measure of ‘persistent disadvantage’ to recognise schools and communities facing the toughest circumstances. Similarly in the early years, the proportion of funding for deprivation has remained the same, despite a significant increase in the number of disadvantaged children. This proportion must rise from 8% to 9.5% to restore the same per-pupil levels as 2017/18 so local authorities with the highest levels of need have the resources to give children in their area the best start in life.

Not all problems are related to funding. The school system suffers from high levels of social segregation, even within state comprehensives. The highest performing schools are attended by those with affluent parents, and low performing schools with high levels of disadvantage. Some of this is driven by where people live, but far from all of it. A pupil eligible for Free School Meals is much less likely to attend a high performing school than their peers, even when there is one in their area.

The Sutton Trust is working with schools across the country to reform their admissions policies to make them more inclusive, through our Fair School Admissions Pledge. But one of the keys to progress is collective action. Schools are competitive entities, so there is an advantage when all schools in an area change together. Local authorities can help lead the way, as Brighton and Hove have already done, in making admissions fairer. And national government can give local authorities a greater co-ordinating role in school admissions, even in an increasingly academised picture.

The Levelling Up agenda held much promise but has unfortunately failed to deliver. Regardless of the colour of the next government, there must be a meaningful programme to spread funding and opportunity more widely across the country. Education should be seen as a vital element of any spatial or regional strategy, in particular by better connecting educational opportunities with employment opportunities.

For the future health of the country, it is also crucial that social mobility need not require geographical mobility. Opportunities to get on in life must be spread much more widely, and the trend for increasing concentration of opportunity in big cities must be reversed.

Check out: NextGov: What the next government should do for children’s services and NextGov: Revitalising local democracy.

Sign up for more NextGov insights here.

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