Katharine Birbalsingh’s talk of narrowing wealth gaps and celebrating people’s varied talents and successes is full of wonderful aspirations, but that’s not social mobility, writes Jeffery Quaye for Schools Week

The United Kingdom has one of the lowest rates of social mobility among countries in the developed world. Irrespective of talent, a child born here to a low-income family does not have access to as many opportunities as their wealthier peers. Levelling-up secretary Michael Gove recently acknowledged the extent of the problem: “Not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success,” he said. “For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline.”

This sets the context for the high expectations surrounding the work of the social mobility commission. But social mobility isn’t just an important topic; it is also a complex construct. So while Katharine Birbalsingh raised some fundamental questions in her inaugural address as commission chair, it’s disappointing that she did so seemingly without embracing the challenges that need to be addressed to realise the promise of social mobility. Instead, she suggested a deliberate shift from a known and internationally recognised paradigm to what appears to be a very incoherent conception, purely reliant on occupational mobility.

In case you missed it, Birbalsingh argued that levelling up should aim to deliver a fairer model than “Dick Whittington”-style social mobility. But why move away from a model that is aspirational and challenges the intergenerational reproduction of inequality? Is the aim to calibrate social mobility indicators to portray a positive picture?

Inequality of opportunity

The commission argues that “we could reduce inequality, for example, without improving social mobility: we could just reduce the gap between the top and the bottom, without improving the movement in between.” I agree that inequality is also a pressing problem, and a distinct one from social mobility. But we won’t achieve true social mobility – in the sense of movement of individuals and groups across systems of social stratification/hierarchy – until those in positions of power challenge the systemic drivers of inequality. Simply reducing the gap won’t do it.

I also agree with Birbalsingh that individuals have agency and aspirations. But I would caveat that by adding that these can be shaped by what people experience and internalise as possible. It is a truism that “those born nearer to the top have advantages over those born nearer to the bottom”. And in my experience very few of us “move from this general observation to the conclusion that […] gaps and disparities […] are set in stone”.

As such, calls for a clearer definition of social mobility seem far from urgent. Geography, for example, is both far more pressing and more susceptible to policy interventions. Better distribution of high-quality education and employment is surely crucial to addressing both inequality and social mobility.

Poverty of aspiration

The commission’s focus on occupational mobility without change in social class means aspiration is in fact absent from its register. More recognition of what amounts to little more that horizontal mobility is no substitute for increased vertical mobility. Birbalsingh asks: “If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating? Would we really want to say that it doesn’t count as social mobility?” Yes, it is worth celebrating. And no, it doesn’t count. Social mobility is about inclusion and everyone having a fair chance at the top jobs.

The aspiration that every individual should be able to “apply their talents in ways that they enjoy and gives them purpose, for our wider society and economy” is a fair one. But Birbalsingh’s education background could have led to a different set of conclusions. We need more policies, like the national tutoring programme, that ensure children have far less disparate starts in life and access to the same purposeful uses for their talents – whether they are a ‘step up’ or a ‘step down’ from the positions their parents hold.

Anything less is simply patronising those who are perennially immobile while leaving the causes of their immobility untouched.