Press release

State of the Nation report on social mobility in Great Britain

Britain's social mobility problem is getting worse for young people.

Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse for an entire generation of young people, the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2016 report warns today.

The impact is not just felt by the poorest in society but is also holding back whole tranches of middle- as well as low-income families - these treadmill families are running harder and harder, but are standing still.

The problem is not just social division, but a widening geographical divide between the big cities - London especially - and too many towns and counties across the country are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially.

The State of the Nation 2016 report, which was laid before Parliament this morning, lays bare the scale of the social mobility challenge facing the government. It finds fundamental barriers, including an unfair education system, a 2-tier labour market, a regionally imbalanced economy and an unaffordable housing market.

The Social Mobility Commission welcomes the high priority that the current, as well as successive, governments have given to social mobility, and finds that some real progress has been made. But it concludes that the twentieth-century expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one is no longer being met.

It points to evidence that those born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership, the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people, is in sharp decline, among the young especially. Most shocking of all, today only 1 in 8 children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult.

The commission calls for new thinking and new approaches to deal with these deep structural problems. It recommends that an ambitious 10-year programme of social reform is needed which the government should lead and which employers and educators should join.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said:

The rungs on the social mobility ladder are growing further apart. It is becoming harder for this generation of struggling families to move up.

The social divisions we face in Britain today impact many more people and places than the very poorest in society or the few thousands youngsters who miss out on a top university. Whole sections of society and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind.

The growing sense that we have become an ‘us and them’ society - where a few unfairly entrench power and wealth to themselves - is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.

As the EU referendum result showed, the public mood is sour and decision-makers have been far too slow to respond.

We applaud the Prime Minister’s determination to heal social division and foster social progress. That is a big ambition. It will require big action. Fundamental reforms are needed in our country’s education system, labour market and local economies to address Britain’s social mobility problem. That should be the holy grail of public policy, the priority for government and the cause which unites the nation to action.

Key findings include:

  • Britain has a deep social mobility problem - the poorest find it hardest to progress but so do families with an annual income of around £22,500
  • people born in the 1980s are the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors
  • millions of workers - particularly women - are trapped in low pay with only 1 in 10 escaping
  • only 1 in 8 children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult
  • from the early years through to universities and the workplace, there is an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and success
  • in the last decade, 500,000 poorer children were not school-ready by age 5
  • children in deprived areas are twice as likely to be in childcare provision that is not good enough, compared with the most prosperous areas
  • families where both parents are highly educated now spend on average around 110 minutes a day on educational activities with their young children compared to 71 minutes a day for those with low education. This compares with around 20 to 30 minutes a day in the 1970s when there was no significant difference between the groups of parents
  • over the last 5 years 1.2 million 16-year-olds - disproportionately from low-income homes - have left school without 5 good GCSEs. At present, just 5% of children eligible for free school meals gain 5 A grades at GCSE
  • a child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child in the most advantaged
  • young people from low-income homes with similar GCSEs to their better-off classmates are one third more likely to drop out of education at 16 and 30% less likely to study A-levels that could get them into a top university
  • young people are 6 times less likely to go to Oxbridge if they grow up in poor household. In the North East, not one child on free school meals went to Oxbridge after leaving school in 2010
  • in the North East and the South West, young people on free school meals are half as likely to start a higher-level apprenticeship
  • in London, the number of top-end occupational jobs has increased by 700,000 in the last 10 years compared to just under 56,000 in the North East
  • despite some efforts to change the social make-up of the professions, only 4% of doctors, 6% of barristers and 11% of journalists are from working-class backgrounds
  • home ownership is in sharp decline - particularly among the young. Rates among the under-44s have fallen by 17% in the last decade
  • people who own their homes have average non-pension wealth of £307,000, compared to less than £20,000 for social and private tenant households
  • there is a new geography of disadvantage, with many towns and rural areas - not just in the North - being left behind affluent London and the South East. In 40 local authority areas, one third of all employee jobs are paid below the living wage
  • more than half the adults in Wales, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and Northern Ireland have less than £100 in savings

Key recommendations

Early years - the government should:

  • introduce a new parental support package at key points in a child’s life to support children falling behind
  • set a clear objective that by 2025, every child should be school-ready at the age of 5 and the child development gap has been closed with a new strategy to increase high-quality childcare for low-income families
  • double funding for the early years pupil premium to ensure better childcare for those that need it most

Schools - the government should:

  • have as its core objective the ambition, within the next decade, of narrowing the attainment gap at GCSE between poorer children and their better-off classmates by two thirds, bringing the rest of the country to the level achieved in London today
  • rethink its plans for more grammar schools and more academies
  • mandate the 10 lowest performing local authorities to take part in improvement programmes so that by 2020 none of those schools are Ofsted-rated inadequate and all are progressing to good
  • reform the training and distribution of teachers and create new incentives - including better starting pay - to get more of the highest-quality teachers into the schools that need them
  • require independent schools and universities to provide high-quality careers advice, support with university applications and share their business networks with state schools
  • repurpose the National Citizen Service so that all children between the ages of 14 and 18 can have quality work experience or extra-curricular activity

Post 16-education and training - the government should:

  • develop a single UCAS-style portal over the next 4 years so that youngsters can make better choices about their post-school futures
  • make schools more accountable for the destinations of their pupils and the courses they take post-16
  • school sixth form provision should be extended and schools given a role in supporting FE colleges to deliver the Skills Plan. The number of 16- to 18-year-old NEETs should be zero by 2022
  • low-quality apprenticeships should be scrapped
  • a new social mobility league table should be published to encourage universities to widen access
  • over the next 10 years, higher education should be extended to those parts of Britain that have no or low provision

Jobs, careers and earnings - the government should:

  • create a new deal with employers to define business’ social obligations and the support they will get
  • develop a second chance career fund to help older workers retrain and write off advanced learner loans for part-time workers
  • work with large employers, local councils and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to bring new high-quality job opportunities backed by financial incentives to the country’s social mobility cold spots
  • support LEPs in social mobility cold spots to tackle local skills gaps and attract better jobs to the area
  • all large business should develop strategies to provide low-skilled workers with opportunities for career progression
  • introduce a legal ban on unpaid internships

Housing - the government should:

  • commit to a target of building 3 million homes over the next decade - with one third being commissioned by the public sector
  • expand the sale of public-sector land for new homes and allow targeted house-building on green-belt land
  • modify the starter home initiative to focus on households with average incomes and ensure these homes when sold go to other low-income households at the same discount
  • introduce tax incentives to encourage longer private-sector tenancies
  • complement plans to redevelop the worst estates, with a £140-million fund to improve opportunities for social tenants to get work

For further information, please contact Kirsty Walker, Social Mobility Commission, on 020 7227 5371 or 07768 446167 or

Notes for editors

The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. It currently consists of 4 commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.

The commission board currently comprises:

  • Alan Milburn (chair)
  • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
  • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
  • David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation

The functions of the commission include:

  • monitoring progress on improving social mobility
  • providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility
  • undertaking social mobility advocacy

Today’s report is the fourth annual assessment by the commission of the government’s progress on social mobility.

Published 16 November 2016