It’s a real pleasure for me to have the opportunity to speak to you today under the auspices of the Centre for Social Justice.
This is an organisation dedicated to putting social justice at the heart of British politics and policy.
And it’s great to be speaking here at 2nd Chance, which does fantastic work giving unemployed young adults a future, by helping them move into sustained employment.
Now you might be wondering why, as Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DFID), I’m here today talking to you about social mobility.
Well partly it’s because international development and social mobility are both issues very close to my heart.
But it’s also because improving social mobility is a generational challenge.
And tackling generational challenges is really what DFID has been all about:
- Ending extreme poverty,
- Ending Female Genital Mutilation,
- Eradicating polio and malaria.
If these are the generational challenges for our world, then I believe social mobility is the generational challenge for our country.
DFID is all about creating a levelled-up world, and I think it can equally help point the way to how we can get a levelled-up Britain.
I know from personal experience just how much social mobility matters. It has underpinned my personal and my political life.
Today is a long way from the local comprehensive school I went to in Rotherham.
And climbing the ladder has been exhilarating but at times a real challenge. It involved going to university - a step in the dark.
When I asked my parents for advice on where to go, what to study, it was new to them too. As no one in my family had done it before.
At the time, I remember that it felt like a risk, because I was putting off when I would start earning money in a job.
I didn’t know what kind of job I was aiming for, so I wasn’t 100% sure what I should study.
When I look back, my horizons were quite limited.
I didn’t consider doing law as a degree, because I’d never met a lawyer.
And instead, I chose to study something that had already had a big impact on my family.
Economics. Which at the time was all around me in Rotherham and South Yorkshire.
I grew up against the backdrop of the steel industry strikes and miners’ strike.
In fact, my first ever economics lesson was the day my dad was made redundant from British Steel.
That year he was unemployed was the toughest year of my childhood.
But I knuckled down at school and college. And I got on with climbing my own ladder.
As I got on through university and got on with my career, sometimes you had a feeling almost of ‘vertigo’, from gradually getting further and further away from where I started.
Things didn’t always go well. I’ve had to be very resilient at times.
And the bottom line is that my own experience of climbing the ladder is that it is often extremely hard.
I’m not alone in my experience.
The question I ask is: is it easier climbing the ladder now?
Well, if you look across the piece, there is progress on social mobility. But it’s a mixed picture, depending on how you define progress.
So in Britain over the past 50 years, as in other developed countries, we have seen so-called “absolute” social mobility take place. It’s a sort of “quantity” measure.
This is, put simply: have there been more opportunities for people? The answer to that is yes. There have been more opportunities for more people.
Fundamentally, the research by people like Goldthorpe suggests it’s been a story of economic restructuring, as jobs became less manual and more office-based, and economic growth.
With more jobs, many young people have had the opportunity “headroom” to get on.
It’s why keeping our economy on track, creating jobs with our long term economic plan, is so vital.
But what if we look at social mobility in a more qualitative way?
Relative social mobility is when we strip out what’s happened over time in the economy. Look at an underlying picture.
And when you strip out those economic structural and cyclical effects, then, as in so many countries around the world, it’s a different picture.
Because where you relatively start still over-whelmingly predicts where you relatively finish. Even today.
So not accepting that lack of relative social mobility and then changing it, that is our generational challenge.
And this government is rising to that challenge.
UK social mobility: the goal
On his first day back in Downing Street after the General Election, the Prime Minister set out how he wants to make Britain “a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing.”
And, we have already got on with delivering on that ambition:
- More students from disadvantaged backgrounds in English universities
- More apprenticeships
- Lower youth unemployment
- Lowest levels of young people not in education, training or employment since records began.
As a nation our social mobility strategy has a lot of good elements already in place.
And I want to set out what I believe lessons from DFID can contribute to get that structural shift our country needs in relative social mobility.
And it’s worth briefly setting out the case of why we do need social mobility.
In my department, we talk about development being not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.
I believe that dramatically improving social mobility is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do for Britain.
There is both a moral and an economic case for more social mobility in Britain.
It’s better for individuals - as I know from my own experience. When people believe they can get higher, they aim higher. And when they aim higher, they’re likely to go further.
It’s better for communities. When people believe we all have an equal shot, it makes for more cohesive, stable communities.
It’s right for society. The wider the pool of people from which we draw our Parliament, our courts, our boardrooms, our newsrooms, the stronger the basis for trust in accountability, in how Britain runs day-to-day.
But it’s more than that.
Improved social mobility, making more of our country’s human capital, is one of the biggest structural levers we can pull in the UK economy.
Work for the Sutton Trust has assessed that improved social mobility could boost our economy by up to £140bn a year by 2050, that’s an extra 4% of GDP.
It means that only when people can reach their potential, will our economy reach its potential.
Lessons from DFID
So, to take a first lesson from our work on DFID.
On improving prospects for girls in developing countries.
That has taught us that alongside day to day work, there are “critical moments.”
For example girls reaching adolescence may be under pressure to marry, have children and drop out, instead of staying in school.
Yet if they stay in school they’ll marry later, have fewer, healthier children, and if they can work they’ll reinvest most of what they earn back into their family and community.
So focusing on supporting these girls through those moments is especially important to their lives down the line.
For young people in the UK those “critical moments” might be different, but recognising them and helping manage through them is vital.
Another lesson comes from our projects tackling FGM. Getting that work done, and making that generational change on FGM, means taking a comprehensive, holistic, approach.
One that works at a range of levels - all at the same time and for long enough, for change to take root from the top right the way through to the grass roots.
If you look at the work we have done combating FGM, it has seen:
- National Laws changed
- National and local political leadership
- Grass roots projects working with communities and individuals
- Community leaders and religious leaders giving the same messages on ending FGM
- Civil society voices backing up and amplifying the message, often doing the work on the ground.
And all tailored at the local level for communities. Take Ethiopia, for example, where tackling FGM at the local level means dealing with challenges like the fact that over 80 different languages.
So the lesson is the power of an approach that is comprehensive but locally tailored, and locally led.
Another lesson I’d point to from FGM and across the board, that I can’t emphasise enough, is the huge role civil society plays in success, and the momentum that civil society brings.
Make Poverty History was a hugely influential movement that had a big impact.
And the ability of our NGOs to work collaboratively as one team has proved immensely powerful in generating political consensus.
And in getting culture, tradition, attitudes changed on the ground.
The fight against ebola is just one example. It was civil society work that helped people understand in communities how they could stay safe.
And civil society advocacy has helped take what was wrongly a niche issue like FGM to being much more mainstream.
Looking at all that, I don’t think we will have the sort of step-change on social mobility we need here in the UK, without that kind of coordinated advocacy and campaigning from civil society.
You’ve got to be out there, beating the drum, holding all our feet to the fire as well as doing the amazing projects you do.
Time and time again, our work in DFID tells us, it’s about finding momentum and keeping it, because otherwise the power of inertia and status quo drags you back.
In international development we have International Women’s Day coming up on 8 March, we’ve just marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM (6 February).
What are the days and moments for social mobility we can come together on?
Another lesson from DFID: meeting that challenge, sustaining that momentum, and staying the course, is about not chopping and changing our approach every few years.
We’ve been working to eradicate polio for at least 25 years, and working towards a malaria-free world for at least 15 years.
Generational challenges require generational policy.
If we are to shift the dial on social mobility in Britain, we need a longer term approach. Not interventions that are changed with every incoming government.
That means achieving a cross party consensus, built around an evidence-based strategy, working on the 80% we can agree on rather simply arguing about the 20% of this agenda we don’t agree.
And here is another lesson from development work: the central role of evidence, of data and analysis in what we do.
DFID works in complex places, in tough places, with a lot of risk, sometimes danger, and tracking effectiveness is critical.
So in DFID we are data and measurement geeks – and proud of it. That approach to evidence is also key to social mobility strategy in the UK.
It’s happening – take the Sutton Trust-run Education Endowment Foundation, take the work of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
But we need more. And what we’ve got needs pulling together and sharing much more systematically.
The other side of the evidence coin is ‘scale’ and scaling up what works.
At the end of January, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published its Social Mobility Index.
Most strikingly, while we are in a city, London, that really topped the tables – this city is a social mobility hotspot - other cities, including relatively affluent places like Oxford, Cambridge and Worcester, are social mobility coldspots.
We need to dig into why we are finding such big differences on the ground, what has worked in London - can it work in other places? How might it need to be tailored?
If every city could replicate London, that would be a prize worth having.
Call to action
For our part, this Government is stepping up to the challenge on social mobility.
We have a Prime Minister who is leading from the front, who has put giving the opportunity for every child in Britain to go as far as their talents will take them at the heart of this government’s work over the next five years.
In the last month alone the PM has announced the new campaign for mentors for children.
We have BIS working with universities on going further to bring in those from disadvantaged and BME backgrounds, and the Cabinet Office setting out how we will tackle inequality in the public sector.
We have our forthcoming Life Chances strategy.
And so, step by step we are doing what we can in Government.
But Westminster and Whitehall are only part of the solution on social mobility. This is so much more than just about government.
All of us have a role to play. We can and should all ask ourselves, what more can we do?
Employees - ask your boss what more your company can do. Employers, business need to see that apprenticeships is a start, but what else?
Are they really getting beyond the usual recruits? Are you promoting outside of the usual networks?
My then employer Smithkline put me through an MBA at the London business school. It’s not that normal though.
How can Britain’s corporate world do a better job of more consistently pulling in and then pulling through talented young people who start as rough diamonds?
Professions – there’s been lots of progress, but there’s much more work to do.
My profession of accountancy has done lots but there’s much more work to do.
I started by talking about my own journey.
But what galvanised me as a young person wasn’t being angry about a less than perfect start. I’m actually very proud to have been born and brought up in Rotherham.
I remember how I felt. It was a mix of challenge, of excitement, of optimism, of aspiration, of being in an amazing country, with an amazing history, having a sense of wider world out there too, which I wanted to be part of.
It was great parents, encouraging teachers, adamant swimming coaches, who taught me about single-minded persistence to reach your goals.
And I believe that our young people will get themselves and our country a very long way.
But we need to make that ladder of opportunity one that’s easier to climb now and in the future, than it was for those of us climbing it in the past.
It’s about setting Britain fair to help our young people successfully navigate those critical moments, having them channel their energy into achieving goals rather than overcoming barriers.
Improving social mobility is a lot more than individuals reaching their potential.
It’s about our community, our society, our economy, our politics.
A social contract between all of us with everyone else. To me it underpins everything. And it’s complex.
That’s also why delivering a more socially mobile Britain is hard, because it’s about changing Britain’s DNA if we’re going to be successful.
But we’re truly making a start now and we have a huge amount to be proud of.
Britain is a recognised world-leader in international development.
And I believe, in time, we can be a world leader on social mobility too.