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Could A Devolved Regional Approach Be The Magic Bullet To Tackle Social Mobility In The UK?

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) recently released a new report examining 20 years of government efforts to tackle social mobility in the UK. Covering four stages of life from early years and school to training and the world of work, it argues that only seven policies have scored a 'green' rating while 14 scored 'amber' and 16 'red'. This was quickly followed by a further SMC report that argues that low-cost home ownership schemes are more likely to benefit better-off buyers and those who would have become owners in any case.

Both these reports strongly resonate with the current social psyche and zeitgeist. Topics such as housing, rising inequality, stagnating wages, increased tuition fees, 'generation rent' and austerity are pervasive in modern media and quickly lead to the impressions that the UK has become a fractured and broken society. This is further mimicked by the uncertain and divided political environment that currently exist; arguably not only since the recent election or the Brexit referendum, but also since the end of the Blair era and the start of the 2007/08 financial crisis.

However, both reports - like many of the SMC reports - fail to truly address the issue of social mobility. The majority of text and analysis in these documents relate to the notion of social inequality rather than social mobility, and as I have previously stated; a society can be unequal and socially mobile at the same time.

To some extend this lack on focus on 'actual social mobility' is not surprising as social mobility refers to a concept of 'opportunity' conditional on social background. Even if one understood the underlying nature of the relevant statistics it would remain difficult to truly contextualise this into one's own life. Inequality, on the other hand, is relatively easy to contextualise. Can I afford my own home? Has my real pay gone up? Am I poorer than my neighbour? Do I have job opportunities? Finally, the lack of accurate and high quality data to measure 'real' social mobility remains an issue that few outside academia are willing to discuss.

While there is some cross-country evidence that correlates social inequality with worsening social mobility, this evidence remains far from conclusive. The latest UK research on intergenerational social mobility remains mixed with studies finding that class and occupational mobility has either remained stable or improved in recent decades (including my own research), while income mobility may have worsened. Longer run evidence, since the Second World War, also suggest little change in mobility rates.

However, what is evident from current research on 'real' social mobility is that the massive societal and political changes that have occurred in the last 50 years appear to have had little impact on mobility rates. At minimum, it does not appear scientifically possible to pin down specific national and other macro-social policies that have actually changed mobility rates in a meaningful manner. This in turn chimes perfectly with the above mentioned SMC report that government mobility and inequality policies failed to deliver meaningful change in the last 20 years.

This is why the £72m Opportunity Areas Programme that was launched last year and extended this year is of such interest. It aims to attack 'social mobility' by bringing together local businesses, schools and councils in 12 social mobility 'coldspots' to create better opportunities for young people in the UK. These regions rank between 277th and 324th out of 324 regions in the country according to the Social Mobility Index and this targeted approach, at a smaller community and local authority level, which is directly influenced by local actors on the ground, may produce more significant and meaningful results. In the face of the failure of national policies it certainly seems worth a try.

However, here too problems exist. The Social Mobility Index is, again, built on inequality measures and not on social mobility measures. Whether these areas are therefore the most appropriate areas for investment remains a question. Moreover, actual cash investment equates to only £6m per area that is likely out-dwarfed by real terms cuts to school funding. In addition, little information has been provided on how this policy will be evaluated or deemed successful. In its current guise, it is unlikely to provide to be the 'magic bullet' that solves social mobility issues in the 12 identified areas; however, a devolved regional approach to social mobility is likely to be more promising than grandstand national announcements that ultimately fail to deliver.

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