Deputy Prime Minister's speech on social mobility to the Sutton Trust

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg delivered a speech to the Sutton Trust on 22 May 2012 on social mobility.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Clegg

Thank you Peter.

Let me return the compliment and pay tribute to you and to the work of The Sutton Trust, not only in bringing this conference together but also for your tireless advocacy - for years now - and promotion of a more socially mobile society.

Your voice and, equally important, your activities, are hugely important to the ambition that you and I share - to allow all our children to fulfil their potential.

Last week an important piece of British television returned to our screens.

The ‘Up’ series follows the lives of fourteen Britons, from birth to middle age. Every seven years, we are given a glimpse into their world; how their hopes and lives have changed.

From the warmth of our living room, we feel their joy and their sadness as they grow up, get on, and grow old. Many of them encounter personal tragedies and triumphs that are familiar to many of us - but each story is also unique and individual.

The series is compelling because of these personal journeys. But also because it tells us something about the evolution of our society.

Every seven years, we are treated to a snapshot of our progress as a nation. We see how the abstract terms we use - development, opportunity, mobility - are lived experiences for real people.

There can be few more powerful illustrations of just how divided our society can be.

And what hits you hardest is that in the half century since the series began, little has changed.

Our society is still too closed, too static. A society that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life.

Where working hard and doing the right thing does not guarantee you a better future.

Where children of poor people are more likely to be illiterate. More likely to be unhappy. More likely to die young.

Today, I want to talk about how we can change that. I want to make four main points:

  1. First, that social mobility is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one. 
  2. Second, that there are some pernicious myths about social mobility that need to be exploded.
  3. Third, I will set out briefly what we are doing to open up our society and give people control over their own future.
  4. And lastly, I will address the difficult, often neglected issue of class, and in particular how class-based attitudes influence mobility.

First let me indicate the scale of the problem we face.

  • One in five children are on free school meals; only one in a hundred Oxbridge entrants were;
  • Only 7% of children attend independent schools, but public schools provide 70% of high court judges and 54% of FTSE 100 CEOs;
  • One in five children from poorer homes achieve five good GCSEs, compared to three out of four from affluent homes.

This is a legacy we cannot afford. Morally, economically, socially: whatever your justification, the price is simply too high to pay.

We must create a more dynamic society. One where what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born.

For liberals, this is core stuff. It gets to the very heart of our politics. We are a party and a creed that is defined by our belief in a fairer, more open society.

For me, it’s the reason I do this job.

It is the impulse that lies behind our education reforms, as Peter mentioned, including the pupil premium. Education is critical to our hopes of a fairer society. Right now there is a great rift in our education system between our best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families rely on. That is corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy.

I don’t for a moment denigrate the decision of any parent to do their best for their child, and to choose the best school for them. Indeed, that aspiration on behalf of children is one of the most precious ingredients of parenthood.

But we do need to ensure that our school system as a whole promote fairness and mobility, rather than closing down opportunities. We are committed to narrowing the gap in our school system - state and private - and ensuring that all children are given the chance to rise.

The way to do that is to make the state education system better - to level up - and ensure that anyone can get ahead.

And let me get something out of the way right now. I know some people will say I should keep quiet about social mobility.

That my birth, my education, and my opportunities mean I have no right to speak up. I couldn’t disagree more. If people who have benefited from the system don’t speak up, we will never get anywhere.

We have to fight for a society where the fortunes of birth and background weigh less heavily on prospects and opportunities for the future.

I was lucky. But it should not be a question of luck.

If we have a chance to open up success to all, we must seize it.

In a moment, I want to tell you how we’re going to do so.

But first, I want to take on a few myths.

Myth 1 is that social mobility is simply a sub-set of income inequality. According to this myth, mobility will follow automatically in the wake of greater equality. And so it follows that the only thing we should worry about is closing the gap between rich and poor.

Of course, reducing inequality is a good and laudable aim. But unfortunately it’s not the straightforward route to social mobility that its proponents suggest.

In many ways, I wish it was. Life would be much simpler. Our goal would be clear:  redistribution of income would do the job.

The trouble is that, as this conference has been discussing, it’s just not that simple. The causal links are not that clear.

Of course if the gap is narrower you have less distance to travel. But the uncomfortable truth is that nations with similar levels of income inequality have dissimilar levels of social mobility. Why do Australia and Canada have UK levels of inequality, but almost Scandinavian levels of mobility?

So there must be other things going on here. In the education system; in the housing market; or perhaps in social attitudes. Factors impacting on mobility that closing the income gap will not, and cannot, address on its own.

That is why the Coalition Government is deliberately focusing on the public investments most likely to impact directly on social mobility: especially on closing educational attainment gaps, and improving early years education.

The strong evidence for the impact of pre-school learning on life chances has become unanswerable in recent years - and I know you saw even more evidence on this from Jane Waldfogel and Liz Washbrook here yesterday - hence the Government’s investment in this area.

You can see our priorities by following the money: our substantial new investment in pre school education and support for 2,3 and 4 year olds. And I hope that you can also see that our money is following the evidence.

Myth 2 is that social mobility is a project for economic good times - and when the economy is weak and public spending contracting, it’s futile or pointless to pursue social mobility.

Partly this myth comes from those who think our spending plans are dismantling the state’s basic capacity to help. That we are turning the clock back to the 1930s.

This is simply not true. At the end of this Parliament, after all of these difficult cuts and savings, public spending will still account for 42% of GDP. A higher proportion than any time between 1995 and when the banks blew up in 2008. 

And actually, the link between economic growth and mobility is not straightforward.

A growing economy will often do a good job of increasing absolute social mobility - simply by making everyone better off than the previous generation. But growth does not necessarily improve relative social mobility, in other words the way your background affects your life chances.

And it is worth noting that during the long economic upturn from the mid-nineties to the financial crash in 2008, social mobility rates remained flat.

So the link between growth and mobility is not entirely clear either.

And I strongly believe that opening up our society is a vital ingredient to create growth in the first place.

Just think how our economy might have responded to the crisis if everyone who’d ever thought about starting a business could get on with it. If everyone who’d ever hungered after the best education could go for it.

Wasted talent is always a moral crime: but it is increasingly an economic crime, too.

The Sutton Trust’s own work has suggested that boosting poor educational attainment up to the UK average would increase GDP by £140 billion by 2050, and increase long-run trend growth by 0.4 percentage points.

So social mobility is a long-term growth strategy.

So yes, it might be harder to find the money. But that just means keeping your focus, because the long-term social and economic goals are so clear.

The Coalition was formed around a belief in government for the long-term. That’s why we’ve found:

  • £8 billion for pre-school education
  • £2.5 billion by the end of this Parliament for our pupil premium to close the attainment gap in school; and
  • £1bn for our Youth Contract to get young people earning or learning,

Myth 3 is that the promotion of social mobility means lowering standards, or somehow ‘dumbing down’, to ‘socially engineer’ a particular outcome.

Again, this is nonsense. Nonsense, I should add, which is usually peddled by those who benefit from the status quo - and therefore want to keep things the way they are.

Social engineering is what’s happening today: the unfairness in our society, and the system that perpetuates it.
Social mobility is all about creating a truly level playing field, and a fair race. That is why, for example, the Coalition Government is encouraging universities to recruit on the basis of objective potential, on the basis of an ability to excel, not purely on previous attainment.

Now it may surprise the non-Brits among you to learn that in some quarters, here in the UK, the idea of carefully taking into account the impact of background in assessing university applications has been painted by some as a dangerous piece of revolutionary socialism.

But far from dumbing down, it’s about increasing opportunity to achieve excellence.

A study at the University of Bristol showed that state school educated children with top A-levels were 50% more likely to get first-class degrees than privately educated children with the same grades.

So for me this is plain common sense, and a move towards real fairness.

Confronting these myths is critical: we need to show everyone with a stake in social mobility that the Government understands what drives it.

We also need to prove that our commitment to a fairer society runs deep. That we are not just throwing money at the problem and hoping it will go away. So we are putting in place the mechanisms to hold our own government and future governments to account:

  • A powerful set of indicators to show our progress, which we are publishing today;
  • A Ministerial Group on Social Mobility to co-ordinate our work across Whitehall;
  • The establishment of a statutory Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, to report independently on our progress.

And perhaps to this scholarly audience I might even give a plug to our creation of the Social Mobility Sector Transparency Board. 
Not perhaps the most exciting ministerial announcement I’ve ever made! But the Board will be working to link up and make better use of official data, in order to gain a fuller picture of the levels of mobility in our society.

My colleague David Willetts has been instrumental in setting up the Board, which will help open up government data to outside scholars and academics. And those of you working in this field will know how important it is to get the data right.

So far I have talked about why social mobility is the central social preoccupation of the Coalition Government. I have attempted to take on some of the myths that can hamper our progress. And I have described briefly the investments we are making in early years education, our schools, and in university access.

I should also mention the work we are doing with business and other organizations to open up internships, promote mentoring, and widen recruitment processes.

But it would simply be wrong not to talk about something else today: the effect of social class, and in particular class attitudes, on prospects for social mobility.

The Coalition Government is constructing a new architecture for policy-making that is centred on social mobility. A machinery for mobility, if you like.

But class-bound attitudes are the ghost in the machine. Hard to identify, tricky to measure, and extremely difficult to reform, these invisible barriers are therefore some of the hardest to breach.

Too often, the question of class and class attitudes is left in the shadows of the social mobility debate. Politicians are often reluctant to get into a discussion about class especially if, like me, they have been fortunate in their background, schooling and opportunities.

But we can’t ignore it. Class still counts. We are a long distance from being a classless society.

And I don’t only mean in the hard material sense - inequalities in income, health and wealth. I also mean in terms of the attitudes and assumptions we carry around in our heads - about ourselves and about others.

Eighty years ago, the historian Frank Harris declared that: “Snobbery is the religion of England”. I think that statement still has more than a ring of truth today.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s almost a sense of entitlement.

Entitlement to the best schools, universities and professions.
Advantages are handed down almost automatically, generation to generation.

Surrounded by peers, parents, teachers and other role models promoting a sense of aspiration and possibility, the most fortunate see the horizons of their opportunities stretched far in all directions.

And so from day one, they hear a clear, self-confident message. One that says: “The world is yours. Go for it”.
I think everyone should hear that message.

But too many children from less advantaged homes look at certain qualifications, educational institutions, or jobs and think: ‘That’s not for people like me’. Because all too often, that’s the message they’ve heard, over and over again.

One in two parents in the higher social classes expect their child to work in a professional role: only one in five parents at the other end of the scale share that ambition.

And almost one in five teachers say they ‘never advise their most gifted students to apply to Oxford or Cambridge’. Never.
To me, that is a damning indictment on all of us.

We end up with entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other.

A closed society, in which people know their place.

We need an open society, in which people choose their place.

As a nation we have to shake off the outdated, snobbish attitudes of class that are cramping our society and hobbling our economy.

In conclusion, this is a difficult, complex, painstaking, controversial task. It will not yield easy headlines or quick rewards.

But it is right. And I can tell you that we are absolutely determined to push ahead.

With the launch of today’s update of our strategy, we have committed ourselves publicly to the most searching examination of national progress on social mobility.

I am sure plenty of you in this room will hold us to account on this score.

And I certainly hope that you will. Thank you.

Published 22 May 2012