A socially mobile Scotland can beat child poverty

The Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the importance of Scotland taking action to improve social mobility.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn

It is good to be here. I’d like to thank Springburn Academy and headteacher Liz Ervine for hosting me. And I’d like to give special thanks to my fellow Commissioner Douglas Hamilton for organizing my visit today.

This is my first visit to Scotland since the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission began its work in January this year. The Commission is an independent body set up in law to report on what is happening to child poverty and social mobility across Britain. In September we will present our first state of the nation report to the Westminster Parliament. This visit will help inform that report. So I have come to listen as much as to talk. Today I have met Ministers including Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell and Aileen Campbell as well as Cllr Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council. I will also be meeting business and education leaders during the rest of the day. But I wanted to come here to Springburn to get a view from the frontline, not least from young people about the prospects for social progress in Scotland.

One of the virtues about being a Britain-wide commission is the capacity to learn from what are sometimes very different approaches being taken to tackle a common problem – the extent of child poverty and the absence of social mobility. Glasgow is no stranger to either. Areas of the city have some of the highest child poverty rates in the UK. So I have been particularly interested to see the Scottish approach to what children should learn in school, and how they should learn it. I am equally interested in the Scottish government’s plan to introduce statutory widening access agreements to enable more talented children, regardless of social background, to progress to university. In Springburn, I know you’ve taken big strides forward over recent years in getting more students into higher education and I applaud your efforts. I have a very personal reason for being bothered about these issues. A child of a North East England council estate I was lucky enough to end up in the UK Cabinet. I was born at the right time. The 50s and the 60s saw Britain finally emerging from the aftershocks of the war years. Social mobility was in full swing. There was, of course, the most appalling poverty and inequality. For many times were hard. This was not, in any sense, a golden age, but it was a time of great hope. Having won a gruelling war in which so many had sacrificed so much there was shared determination to win the peace.

That determination found expression in the post-war Labour government’s towering achievements: full employment, universal education, a new welfare state. Together they brought new opportunities to millions in our country. By 1958 when I was born the prospect of a more classless society seemed within reach. Five decades on and such optimism looks hopelessly misplaced. Intractable levels of social inequality and a flat-lining in social mobility have thwarted repeated attempts to realise that post-war vision of a truly good and fair society. Britain seems to have lower levels of social mobility – the equal opportunity for each individual, regardless of background, to progress - than other comparable countries. And our society has become more ossified over time. It has also become less equal.

At the sharp end of that widening gap between rich and poor sit the most vulnerable: children. Today - if we use the best-known measure of the number of children living below a poverty line set at 60% of median household incomes, the so-called relative poverty measure - there are 2.3 million children in poverty in the UK. That is nearly 1 in 5 of all children. Scotland has a lower rate - 17 per cent – but the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that it will rise to nearer 23% by 2020. These figures should shock and shame us all. Child poverty strangles progress. It stunts potential. It stifles talent. The more children there are in poverty the less social mobility there will be.

If Britain is to avoid being a society where birth determines fate we have to do much more to break the link between demography and destiny. The goal we should be aiming for is to reduce the extent to which a person’s class or income is dependent on the class or income of their parents. Some say that can never be done. But I believe there are good grounds for optimism that it can. As birth not worth has become more a determinant of life chances, parties from across the political spectrum have, in recent years, once again pinned their colours to the meritocratic mast. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis a new public – maybe even political - consensus has begun to emerge that entrenched inequality and ossified life chances are not a viable social proposition for Britain. Institutions, from banks to schools, universities to governments are having to answer new questions about how they will change what they do in order to change how society works. These are welcome developments.

Of course there is a difference between good intentions and actions. That is where the Commission that I chair comes in. As a statutory and permanent fixture of public life it will have the crucial job of assessing, candidly and independently, whether what this and future Governments actually do, as distinct from what they say, is helping or hindering the prospect of Britain becoming a more mobile society and one that has ended child poverty. We will examine the consequences of welfare and education reform as well as changes in taxation and public spending. We will assess too the policy and practice of businesses, universities and other institutions that can make such an important contribution to improving and equalising life chances. We will be paying particular attention to the impact – positive or negative - that the sometimes different strategies and policies being pursued by governments in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff are having on mobility and poverty.

By definition making progress on these issues is a long term task. Some say it is an impossible one. But we have evidence from these shores that progress is possible. In the last fifteen years across Britain child poverty fell. The attainment gap between wealthy and poorer children in schools narrowed in parts of the country, and the gap between those areas with low levels of participation in higher education and those with the highest levels also narrowed, for the first time in history. The hard truth, however, is that much of that progress took place in far sunnier times. Today we are facing into two strong headwinds: falling family incomes and declining public spending. In these times focusing on what works becomes more important. To make social progress in an age of austerity means being clear about what gets the biggest social mobility bang for the buck. Fortunately there is a lot of evidence from across the world about what makes the biggest difference. As a Commission, we have looked at that research and although everywhere is different some common patterns emerge about what makes for a more mobile society and less child poverty.

Of course there is no single lever that on its own can make a nation more socially mobile. No single organisation can make it happen either. All sorts of things make a difference. Family networks and parenting styles. Careers services and school standards. Career development opportunities and university admission procedures. But I believe the key is employability and education. Social mobility speeded up in the 1950s thanks to a big change in the labour market. The shift from a manufacturing to a services economy drove demand for new skills and opened up new opportunities for professional and white collar employment. More room at the top enabled millions of women and men to step up as a consequence. Social mobility has slowed down in the decades since primarily because of another big change in the labour market: the move to a knowledge-based economy. Since the 1970s technological change has been skills-biased. People with higher skills have seen large increases in productivity and pay while those with low skills have experienced reduced demand for labour and lower average earnings. Today we have a segregated labour market. Those with skills and qualifications enjoy greater job security, higher levels of prosperity and better prospects of social advance. Those without skills find it hard to escape a world of constant insecurity, endemic low pay and little prospect of social progress.

Bridging this divide is the key to healing social division in our country. As our economy becomes ever more reliant on high levels of skills and education they will become more crucial to social mobility in the future. Study after study has come to the same conclusion. Time spend productively in education - including the vital early years - is the most important determinant of future social status, and success in schools leads to more social mobility.

The global evidence suggests that there are five big levers that unlock social progress. They open the door to a society with lower levels of child poverty and higher levels of social mobility. The Commission will be looking for commitments that these levers are being put in place in Westminster, Cardiff and Holyrood.

First, a commitment on early years’ education. The UK as a whole significantly under-invests in childcare. We spend around 0.5 per cent of GDP on childcare costs. That is half the level of Sweden and Denmark. The OECD evidence shows that child poverty is lowest and social mobility is highest where parents can rely on universal, quality and affordable childcare and early learning services. Early education packs a double punch. It positively effects children’s ability and it enables more parents to work. Having all parents in a household in employment massively reduces the chances of a family being in poverty. Widely available, affordable childcare is the best means of securing income for a family, since it dramatically lifts the maternal employment rate. This is the conclusive evidence from the experience of the Nordic countries and Canadian provinces like Quebec, which have introduced universal pre-school childcare. In Scandinavia child poverty rates are less than half of British rates.

Despite help with costs through the tax credit system and the introduction of free childcare places over the past decade, Britain’s female employment rates haven’t seen the gains that might have been expected of such significant investment. Even today, 42 percent of British women who work part-time say they do so because of caring responsibilities – the highest figure in the entire OECD. Household income suffers and in-work poverty grows as a result.

High-quality, affordable and universal childcare and early years services should be the foundation stone for a new approach to tackling poverty and speeding mobility. It is welcome that over recent years childcare has risen up the political agenda. Across Britain all three and four year olds now have access to some free early education provision. In England it is being gradually extended to the 40% most disadvantaged two year olds. In Scotland the plan to provide more free childcare for looked after under-3s is a welcome step, but Scotland lags behind England in extending the offer to parents of younger children. And at only 15 hours in England, 10 hours in Wales and - until the Children’s Bill extends it - 12.5 hours in Scotland, many parents will continue to struggle to balance childcare with high quality full-time work unless more is done.

So what should be done? Scotland has set an example to the rest of Britain through its commitment to make this nation ‘the best place to bring up a child in the world”. It will require transformative change to bring that noble vision to life. It will also require time not least because of the fiscal constraints we all face. But I believe childcare has to be a long term priority for investment and the Commission will be looking to every country in the UK to develop a long-term plan to make childcare and early years services as universal as they are in those Scandinavian countries which enjoy far higher levels of social mobility and far lower levels of child poverty than we do. And we will be looking for evidence for year-on-year progress.

Second, a commitment to close the attainment gap between better-off and less well-off children in schools. For a long-time it was widely accepted by governments and publics alike that – when it came to learning - deprivation was destiny. Better off children would naturally excel. Poorer children would naturally fall behind. We now have extensive evidence – international and domestic – that such social determinism is wrong. Countries as different as Canada, Poland and Singapore have demonstrated a great track record in raising the attainment level of their poorest children. In England too over the last 15 years educational inequality has narrowed. Children who receive free school meals have had faster improving results at 16 than those who do not and some ethnic minority groups, such as black afro-Caribbean boys, began to close the attainment gap. In English secondary schools, sponsored academies have improved at a faster rate than other state-funded schools and at a faster rate than other types of schools operating in similar circumstances. Progress has been most startling in London where pupils who are entitled to free school meals – roughly the poorest sixth in society – now have attainment at the age of 16 which is 50 per cent higher than free school meal students elsewhere in the UK. Policy-makers from around the world are now descending on the city to understand how it was achieved.

Of course, there is a long way to go. Across England as a whole only 36% of children on FSM get good results at 16 compared to 63% of other children. But it’s clear that with the right teaching, resources and support the link between deprivation and destiny can be broken.

Scotland has its own brilliant success stories and a justifiable pride in your education system. So I don’t believe this is a case of others having to copy what has happened in London, where the system is of course different from here. But there are lessons that can be learned between different models. The starting point is to acknowledge, as the recent Commission on School Reform did, that repeated efforts over 50 years have failed to make significant improvements in the exam results of poorer kids in Scotland. Mike Russell, the Scottish Education Secretary put it well when he said “school leavers from the 20% most disadvantaged areas have a tariff score that is less than half that of leavers from the 20% most affluent areas. That gap is greater than most of the developed nations against which we measure ourselves.” In my view it’s a grave social injustice that only one in forty pupils from Scotland’s most deprived households – 220 in the whole of the country - got three As in their Highers in 2011, compared to one in ten across all income levels. The link between demography and destiny here in Scotland has remained stubbornly unbroken. If we are to make social progress that must change.

In my view it can only be done so by enshrining as the twin objectives of education policy the raising of educational standards and the narrowing of educational inequalities. The one without the other will doom Scotland and Britain to lasting social division. Worse than that - a fast lane/slow lane education system can only deepen division. Raising the bar when it comes to schools standards is not enough if it doesn’t also mean closing the attainment gap. Concerted action is needed. So while it is welcome that the UK Government has committed in its social mobility strategy to measuring the attainment gap between disadvantaged and better-off youngsters I want all schools in Britain to know that this is now part of their core business. I would like to see this and future governments sign up to explicit five-year targets for reducing the gap in attainment between children from less well-off and better-off backgrounds. And I would like to see school performance tracked and information published so parents and politicians alike can see where progress is happening and where it is not.

Third, a commitment to ensure fair access to higher education and vocational training. In the most mobile societies students are helped to make the transition to employment, via higher education for the most academically able and via vocational education for those wanting to develop their technical skills. In Britain by contrast we face twin challenges - unequal access to higher education and a low priority being accorded to vocational education. So, today the most advantaged 20% of young people are still seven times more likely to attend university as the 40% most disadvantaged. There is a strong correlation between social class and the likelihood of going to university generally and to the top universities particularly. Scotland has the lowest levels of the poorest students at university in the UK. Barely 27% of students in 2011-12 (not including HE in FE) were from working class backgrounds. That rate has decreased over the last 10 years so we can’t assume the problem will get better.

As a consequence universities will need to redouble their efforts to ensure they are genuinely open to all those with talent and potential. Many are doing so and there is a real appetite in the sector to do more. Collectively universities are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on outreach activity, often in schools, aimed at widening participation. That money needs to be better spent on proven initiatives that get more working class children into university. And universities need to examine their admissions processes so that they admit those with the biggest potential as well as those with the best grades. Many universities, including leading ones, are now using contextual data in order to ensure a more socially diverse intake of students. In Scotland the decision not to impose tuition fees has helped remove one barrier to higher education participation – fear of debt. And I’m very interested in the measures being implemented to introduce statutory access agreements, which could be an important lever to promote fairer access to higher education. The challenge now is to make the fundamental changes necessary to ensure that Scottish universities are open to the widest pool of talent. It is worth remembering that in 2010/11 just 2.7% of students at St Andrews were from Scotland’s most deprived communities. There has been some progress – and as Mike Russell recently said, Glasgow can be proud that it has the highest rate of participation from poorer areas across any of Scotland’s most elite universities. But there is a very long way to go.

Of course, university won’t be right for every young person. It’s vital that they have opportunities to progress after they leave school. Since 2008, the number of under-25s in Scotland who are unemployed has almost doubled. Counteracting that trend means providing high quality apprenticeships, excellent further education attuned to the needs of local labour markets and high quality careers advice. Scotland’s decision to retain the Education Maintenance Allowance is a positive move and Curriculum for Excellence is designed to better prepare students for life. But across Britain if the so-called “other 50%” – those who do not go to university – are to be have opportunities to progress there needs to be a longer-term commitment to rebalance funding and support between higher and vocational education. My Commission will be looking for evidence that is happening.

Fourth, a commitment to put in place the right incentives to work. As the Scottish Child Poverty Strategy highlights, work is clearly the best and most sustainable route out of poverty. Across the UK children in workless households are over three times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. But work alone does not cure poverty. Over 60% of children who are in poverty in the UK live in households where at least one family member is in work. That number has risen not fallen over the last decade or so.

In-work poverty needs new focus. Major reforms are needed to tackle it. The Scottish child poverty strategy is right to aim to “increase the numbers of parents in good quality employment”. How best to do so is the question. Reforming the welfare system to provide better incentives for parents to enter employment and to increase hours once in work is important even if it is controversial. The Commission will be assessing its impact. But other approaches are needed too. I commend in particular the contribution that employers like Glasgow City Council are making to reduce in-work poverty by adopting the Scottish Living Wage. I hope more employers will follow its lead.

Fifth, a commitment to open up fair access to a career in the professions. We know from our history that the chances of social mobility are greater if there are more professional jobs available. The upsurge in professional employment in the middle of the last century created an unparalleled wave of social mobility in Britain. It created unprecedented opportunities for millions of women and men to move up and get on. Today, 42% of all employment in the UK is in the professions. That is set to rise to 46% by 2020. The professions will account for approximately 83% of all new jobs in Britain in the next decade. The question is whether the growth in professional employment is creating a new social mobility dividend for our country. The short answer is not yet. The professions are actually becoming more not less socially exclusive. At the top especially, they remain dominated by a social elite. With half of the UK’s top journalists, barristers/advocates and politicians all privately-schooled and often educated in England and Scotland’s most elite Universities the senior ranks of the professions are too often a closed shop. The consequence is that too many able children from average income and middle class families – let alone low-income families – are losing out in the race for professional jobs.

There should be nothing holding back the young people at Springburn from aiming high. So we need to overcome the practical barriers preventing fair access to a professional career – be it lack of the right careers advice, limited work experience opportunities, non-transparent internships, antiquated recruitment processes or inflexible entry routes. Some of these are for government to solve but others lie in the hands of the professions themselves. Take internships. They are a new rung on the professional career ladder. But they tend to go on the basis of who, not what you know. In professions from medicine to journalism most interns are still recruited informally, so favouring those in the know and those with connections. Most internships are also unpaid, so disadvantaging those from less affluent backgrounds who cannot afford to work for free for any length of time. The good news there is some evidence of a galvanised effort on the part of many employers to make access to their professions fairer. And Scotland has done some pioneering work, including through the Scottish Funding Council’s Access to the High Demand Professions programme. Elsewhere, the Pathways to the Professions scheme at Edinburgh University is helping state school children access medicine, law and architecture. It has inspired similar schemes across Britain. When I look at the big picture here, however, the thing that strikes me most is that social mobility and fair access to the professions is not yet as high on the agenda as elsewhere in Britain. That isn’t because Scotland doesn’t have a problem here. In 2004 for example, one-third of the most Senior Civil Servants in Scotland (Heads of Department) were privately educated, when fewer than 5% of Scottish children are educated privately. The story is similar for business leaders and judges. Organisations like Scottish Business in the Community want to find ways of working with employers and professions to make them as open as they can be to the enormous pool of talent that Scotland has, among young people in particular. The Commission will be looking for evidence of a national effort to bring that about.

These five levers can make such a difference to reducing poverty and speeding mobility. Part of my purpose of being here today is to understand where Scotland is on each of them. I have no doubt that in some areas you will be able to teach England a thing or two. But it might just be that in other areas there will be insights that Scotland can take from the rest of Britain – and from other countries across the world.

Defining what needs to be done is actually the easy bit. The tough thing is working out how to do it. Good intentions and good policies are not enough to deliver social progress. Key ingredients for success are clarity of purpose and a process for change. What I would like to see is government – whether in Scotland or in England or in Wales – making the ending of poverty and the speeding of mobility its priority for action. It is not enough to proclaim that social mobility is an end to which government aspires. It has to will the means as well as the ends. More than that it has embed social mobility considerations in governmental process and then, through transparent data, be willing to track progress. Future Budgets and spending plans for example should include an assessment of their likely impact on poverty and mobility. Those considerations have to become a golden thread which runs through all aspects of what government does. Otherwise social mobility will become an afterthought rather than a driving force.

With the right approach I believe we can create a society across Britain which ends child poverty and enjoys high levels of mobility. In Scotland your common connections, your shared values and your national institutions give you the means to shape that future. A socially mobile Scotland can beat child poverty. But it will not happen by chance. It will require determination and commitment on the part of communities and politicians, schools and universities, professions and employers alike. They all need to step up to the plate. If we can harness their energy and endeavour then we will create a better, fairer, more open society. The Commission looks forward to working with all those in Scotland who share our desire to bring that about.

Published 10 June 2013