Justine Greening: It will take ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’ to crack social mobility
Speaking at a Social Mobility conference yesterday, Education Secretary Justine Greening laid out her plan on how to crack the social mobility problem.
“Of all the speeches I’ve made, perhaps this one is the most personal,” said Justine Greening as she began her address launching the Government’s plan for improving social mobility through education.
“Social mobility has been such an important part of my own life,” continued the Cabinet minister, who in July 2016 became the first comprehensively-educated Conservative to be appointed Education Secretary. “When I was looking ahead as a child about where I felt I could get to, I perhaps never thought that I’d be in this position and giving this speech in this role today.”
Ms Greening, who is also the minister for women and equalities, was speaking at the Reform think tank’s 2017 Social Mobility conference, held at KPMG’s Canary Wharf office in south east London. During her keynote speech, the Putney MP set out firstly; why Britain has never cracked social mobility, secondly; the Government’s ambitions for “helping everyone become the best version of themselves through education”, and lastly; why everyone in society needs to be part of the solution.
To begin, Ms Greening attributed a failure to solve social mobility to the following points:
- A “simplistic search” for a magic bullet policy
- Initiatives being driven by government alone, with no longevity to any approach
- Insufficient involvement from business and employers
- Policies being implemented under a “one size fits all” approach and done to rather than with communities
Ms Greening also said that, while spending on improving social mobility “does matter”, it is not the only solution. “We all have to recognise that if we could buy our way out of this problem, it would have happened. Because by 2020, when you look back at the increase we will have had since 1990, per pupil real terms investment will have gone up by over 70%. So, we know that investment is crucial, but it’s not enough”.
But the Cabinet minister said she was “optimistic” about the future. She argued the Government’s “new, comprehensive strategy”, which is both “national but tailored” to local areas, could change the status quo. The proposals, she insisted, would leave “no community behind”.
The Cabinet minister outlined the strategy’s four key ambitions for improving social mobility:
- Improving early language and literacy so all children have the best start to their education
- Closing the attainment gap, and making sure every child is at a good school
- Improving post-16 choices (with particular focus on technical education)
- Making sure everyone can make smart career choices and progress in their careers
“I’ve said that social mobility initiatives in the past have had no longevity – that’s why this time we want to focus on building lasting success through partnership.
“And so, I’m asking employers, education professionals, communities, voluntary groups and many more to come together and join a united effort to put social mobility at the heart of your work.”
She concluded: “I have optimism now that as a country we can crack this and get to where we need to be. It will take collective determination, persistence, single-mindedness, sheer bloody-mindedness. And an unbreakable conviction that things can change.”
Melanie Richards, partner and deputy chair of KPMG UK, echoed Ms Greening’s calls for all aspects of society to work together to improve social mobility. “Social mobility is really the critical social issue of our time. We need all of the talent in every part of our society to have an opportunity to flourish. At the moment, that opportunity depends on where you live,” she said.
She concluded: “It will take the best efforts of all of us working together to ensure future generations have the skills and opportunities they deserve.”
SOCIAL MOBILITY ‘GOING BACKWARDS’
During the first panel session of the conference, which considered years 0-14, Labour MP and former shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, argued that social mobility in the UK is “going backwards”. Notwithstanding “significant improvements” in education over the last 30 years, Ms Powell cited falling real wages and the housing crisis as evidence that social mobility is worsening. “Of course, the global economy is changing alongside that. So, we’re having to run to keep up,” she said.
“We have got to stop thinking of social mobility in terms of how we pluck out the one or two brightest [people] and make sure that they get to the very top of society or fulfil their potential.
“Really this is about how we can close the inequality gaps and how we can make sure all those on what you might call a long tail of underachievement, or who are working adults or operating at the lower rungs of the educational skills market are all lifted up and all given greater opportunity.”
Looking ahead to the changing workplace, the Labour backbencher said the Government must take into consideration the rise of automation when formulating policy. “If current trends continue, there are going to be millions and millions more people with low skills competing for a very small number of low-skilled jobs,” she said.
She agreed with Ms Greening that “funding isn’t everything” when it comes to social mobility. “But funding does matter too… it’s not just about the level of funding, it’s about the choices of that funding as well.”
Reflecting on the Education Secretary’s speech, Ms Powell expressed concerns about where money is being spent on education, and lamented the closures of Labour initiatives such as sure start centres.. She said she would also like to see ministers’ social mobility strategy tested against “every budget, every bill, every power that government has” to see if they are serious about improving the status quo.
Ms Powell was joined on the panel by Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, who said that issues surrounding the quality of education in early years and support provided to those over the age of 16 were vital in the fight to improve social mobility. Fellow panellist Sam Freedman, executive director for participant impact and delivery at Teach First, wanted to see ministers make teaching an attractive profession and move away from punitive accountability to supportive accountability in schools. The panel was chaired by Emilie Sundorph, researcher at Reform.