Social mobility must be at ‘the heart’ of levelling up, Government tsar says

A new framework has been developed to understand ‘the reasons why social mobility happens, when it happens and why some people buck the trend’.

Teenager hanging around wearing hoodie top, London, UK
Teenager hanging around wearing hoodie top, London, UK

The Government’s social mobility tsar has called on leaders to put social mobility “at the heart” of levelling up as a new index is unveiled to track where people start and where they end up in life.

While unveiling the State of the Nation 2022 report on Thursday, the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) chair Katharine Birbalsingh said the framework was developed to better inform those who create policy, as without better data, policy advice was relying on “elaborate guesswork”.

“We want to see government, both local and national, placing social mobility at the heart of levelling up by using the findings from our index to inform and evaluate success, and to make sure that their benefits are reaching those who need them most,” Ms Birbalsingh said.

Screengrab of Katharine Birbalsingh in her inaugural speech as chairwoman of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) on the cost of living on June 9
Social Mobility Commission chairwoman Katharine Birbalsingh has called on leaders to put social mobility ‘at the heart’ of levelling up (PA)

She added that any future policy on social mobility needed to be “firmly based on solid evidence”.

The report’s newly developed social mobility index will monitor “actual mobility for the first time” by comparing someone’s circumstances at birth with their outcomes in their thirties and fifties.

The end result will hopefully provide “the reasons why social mobility happens, when it happens and why some people buck the trend”, Ms Birbalsingh said.

The State of the Nation 2022 report also contained findings from the first phase of research.

Back view of teenagers walking to flats
The new Social Mobility Index will provide ‘game-changing framework’ for monitoring and understanding how young people’s chances of mobility are evolving, Oxford sociology professor Anthony Heath said (Alamy/PA)

The most worrying of the SMC’s initial findings indicated that two thirds of disadvantaged pupils and more than a third of all other pupils fail to achieve a good pass in English and Maths at GCSE.

In the 2020 to 2021 academic year, only 31.7% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a grade 5 or above in GCSE English and Maths compared with 59.2% of all other pupils.

Anthony Heath, emeritus professor of Sociology at Oxford University, who helped develop the new Social Mobility Index, said it draws on international research to provide “game-changing framework” for monitoring and understanding how young people’s chances of mobility are evolving.

“It will provide early signs of barriers that need to be tackled so that we can move towards an equal playing field for all,” he said.

Children playing football at the Keepmoat Regeneration community event, London Borough of Haringey, London UK
The report’s newly developed Social Mobility Index will monitor ‘actual mobility for the first time’ to better advise policy-makers (Alamy/PA)

The SMC will aim to provide consistency over time with its Social Mobility Index so that data can be compared annually – and at longer intervals of five or 10 years – to show trends in social mobility.

Ms Birbalsingh, who was appointed the chair of the commission in 2021, earlier stressed the importance of not conflating social mobility and inequality, adding that society needed to find a new way of framing social mobility that did away with the “rags to riches” narrative.

“We’re too often distracted by that romantic Hollywood-type film of you’ve been born at the bottom and now you’re at the top and so on,” she said.

“When in fact most of us don’t actually even want to be prime minister and we don’t want to be millionaires – what we want is to be able to find a job where we can find purpose and fulfil our talents.”

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