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How we can use data to improve equality of opportunity

(Adobe Stock)

4 min read

Why do some people succeed and others fail? How can we ensure where someone starts in life doesn’t determine where they end up?

Social mobility – the link between a person’s outcomes and their parents – is often what we think about when we try to answer these questions, but it’s a complex phenomenon. 

A wide range of factors influence social mobility. Talent and ability are clearly part of the equation, but very few can flourish without the support of families, communities and educational institutions. The labour market and wider factors such as inheritance, geography and even individual postcode also play a part. This complexity can lead to confusion, so only by looking at the data, and – crucially – linking various datasets, can we improve our interventions and people’s outcomes.

The most frustrating thing is that the government holds a lot of this information already

There are great examples of where data linkage has provided valuable insights and helped to inform public policy. The United States linked tax records of parents and children to show which neighbourhoods offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty – something we could do here, but don’t. In the Seattle metro area, local officials are using this information to help low-income families move to equally affordable areas which offer high rates of upward mobility.

In the United Kingdom we lag behind our counterparts when it comes to social mobility data. Many issues cannot be properly analysed because of data gaps, barriers to sharing and issues with data linkage. That’s why the Social Mobility Commission is publishing a report calling on the government to do more to improve this data.

In producing this report, perhaps the most shocking thing we discovered was that there are around 1.7 million children living in relative poverty who are invisible in our education statistics – we simply can’t track them. These “lost children” don’t show up on the system because they aren’t eligible for free school meals, and there is no other available identifier of disadvantage. Of those who have signed up for free school meals we know very little about the households they live in, or their parents’ income, occupations or educational attainment. The most frustrating thing is that the government holds a lot of this information already, and even consulted five years ago on proposals to identify and better understand these families. Yet no data has been published, or any timeline produced for the future of the project. 

Collecting data on whole households could be one of our most powerful tools to address regional inequality, because it will allow us to target our interventions much better, but the information is just sitting on computers in Whitehall. 

There are actions the government can introduce now to begin to fix this. It can deliver the matched database it has been working on for five years. It can speed up the rollout of accreditation that supports departmental data sharing. It can link departmental outcome delivery plans to specific data-sharing goals, and commit to recent HMRC consultation proposals to collect occupational data. 

These actions won’t just help social mobility analysts, they’ll support all decision makers working to tackle disadvantage.

This is a long game, which requires sustained focus. That’s why we’ll be working with Office for National Statistics and others on these issues and reporting on government progress against these recommendations each year.

There is a role for parliamentarians too in providing the political leadership and long-term cross-party commitment needed. Through parliamentary debate and engagement we can deal with privacy concerns and other issues. Through a cross-party commitment to produce a new national data strategy after the next election we can ensure that data doesn’t fall off the agenda. 

If we all play our part then we will have much better answers to the question, “how can we ensure where someone starts in life doesn’t determine where they end up?” 


Alun Francis, deputy chair of the Social Mobility Commission and principal and chief executive at Oldham College.

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