The slowness of social mobility

November 3, 2008 at 8:34 pm | Posted in New Labour, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

When we try to assess how much progress we’re making towards a more equal society, there are several different trends you can look at and a variety of methods you can use to measure them. This always makes it difficult to know for certain what’s happening, because even if we could all agree on which trend is most important (is it absolute poverty? Relative poverty? Economic inequality? Regional inequality? Social mobility?), you can still take issue with how the data was compiled and how it should be interpreted.

So when you read one report which tells you Britain is becoming less socially mobile and another which contends the opposite, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one of them is incorrect, nor that the situation has changed all that much in the intervening years. Confusing, right?

That’s particularly true today, as the government is apparently basing its claim to have made Giant Strides towards equality on just one criteria; the extent to which family income effects a child’s educational achievement, which the Cabinet Office insists has weakened in recent years.

What I find interesting about this is how dazzlingly incoherent it is for Labour to be hyping it up at all. Just leaving aside the basic point that your claim of progress looks more credible if you have slightly more information to back it up, the government is essentially trumpeting something it doesn’t believe it can take too much credit for.

For a number of years now, the government’s attitude to mobility & equality is that it is best achieved through positive interventions in a child’s life, particularly from a very young age. That was the rationale behind SureStart and the Family Nurse Partnership, and it was patently obvious to anyone who supported them that we wouldn’t really know whether they’ve had much effect until the first generation to have used them begins to take their GCSEs. So if, as the report states, family background had less of an impact on GCSE results for those born in 1990 than those born in 1970, surely Tories deserve some of the credit for that?

The point I really want to make here is that – absent of a revolution – changes in social mobility will only happen very slowly, and it’s not always immediately detectable whether a government’s policy is working or not. Such changes inevitably have a generational aspect to them, and the sad truth is that by the time Labour discovers how successful they’ve been, they’ll probably be back in opposition, when the party in power will be taking the credit/blame for the previous government’s successes/failures.

Photo by Flickr user laffy4k (Creative Commons)

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