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We must empower parents by giving them the tools to help their children

We must empower parents by giving them the tools to help their children


4 min read

Just after I was appointed, I asked my students to tell me what social mobility meant to them.

They wrote dozens of essays, shaped by their experiences. One child wrote: “Where you are born, live, go to school and work remains an important factor in determining where you get in life – but this shouldn’t be the case.” 

My commission will work hard to address obstacles to social mobility. I and my deputy, Alun Francis (Principal of Oldham College), started this journey with the publication of our State of the Nation report which for the first time brings real rigour to the measurement of social mobility. We’d like to see the findings in our index used across government and beyond, particularly for the levelling up agenda.

We also want to prioritise education and families. It’s always been my passion to give disadvantaged children opportunities they would not otherwise have had. I’ve done this using traditional teaching methods and high standards – providing scaffolding for children so that when they leave school we have given them the tools to succeed.

But as I said in my inaugural speech, success can mean different things. Not everyone has to go to university. The headline which dominated on the day was The Telegraph’s rather odd spin that “Working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxford”. This was not what was said or implied. In fact, quite the opposite. You only have to look at the institutions Alun and I lead to see how high we encourage our students to aim. We want them to be the very best they can be, and to live in a world where no-one is held back by their background. 

But we cannot underestimate the value of apprenticeships and qualifications like T-levels to help other young people – those who won’t go to Oxford – to seize the full variety of opportunities, and make use of their full range of talents. That’s why, for example, we want to see the government implementing the Augar recommendations on skills gaps as swiftly as possible.

We want to empower parents to help their children right from the start.

The recent Levelling Up White Paper rightly focuses on how we can make regions prosper with more investment and higher skills. We support its ambition to improve adult literacy and numeracy. We also need to look at early years, nurseries and schools to ensure that services are better distributed across the country. Paying more to attract good teachers to poorer areas – as the white paper suggests – may be one way to do that. And we need private sector growth to ensure that young people don’t have to move from their communities to find a decent job. 

But it’s around families that we most need to change the narrative. The early years are so important for social mobility, yet when children start school at age five, 43 per cent of those on free school meals fail to achieve a “good level of development” compared to 26 per cent of non-free school meal pupils. The good news is that this gap has narrowed over time, but we want to see it narrowed even further. 

We want to empower parents to help their children right from the start. We know it’s not easy – parents and carers have an exhausting job, and many are focused on getting food on the table. But there are simple things that can make a difference. So I’ve commissioned detailed work into the benefits of parent and child interaction in those early years. 

We know the value of parents reading to their children, of talking to them and playing with them – but we need to make this as familiar to parents as the “five-a-day”.

Katharine Birbalsingh is Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and headmistress at Michaela School.

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