Theresa May marked her arrival as Britain’s new Prime Minister two years ago with an impassioned speech on the steps of Downing Street, promising to put social mobility at the centre of her vision for Britain.
Despite the looming of Brexit, an issue that was about to dominate the political agenda, May said her government would do “do everything we can to help”, to ensure people go “as far as their talents would take them”.
But fast-forward 18 months, and Alan Milburn, who as chair of the Social Mobility Commission was tasked with changing this dynamic, had already resigned after declaring he had “little hope” that May’s pledge to build a fairer Britain could ever become a reality.
Six months after his departure, his successor was finally appointed. It is now Dame Martina Milburn – no relation to Alan – who will shoulder the gargantuan task of improving the life chances of the country’s most disadvantaged communities.
In her first interview since her position was confirmed, Dame Martina – who used to work as a journalist, before taking on senior positions at the Prince’s Trust and Children in Need – said she had a clear message to the Prime Minister: ignore the Social Mobility Commission, and I too will quit.
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“The bottom line is, if we keep getting blocked then we will end up with the same result as last time and we will go,” she said. “I have always been very, very passionate about social mobility and I do feel very, very strongly about it.”
Despite the SMC being a small organisation, Milburn says she wants to do “big things” to improve people moving up in life. She has already secured a salary for social mobility commissioners, and a secretariat in the senior civil service who will compile a quarterly report for the Prime Minister on their work.
Milburn wants to create “a movement for change people can get behind,” she said. She wants to hire 12 paid commissioners – and says to potential candidates “if you think you can do it, I want to hear from you”. She will split them into three task forces to take on 18-month themes, with vocational education likely to be the first focus.
Milburn plans to pressure colleges to create more evening courses, better quality apprenticeships and a renewed focus on early intervention with “disengaged” children.
“Vocational education has been the Cinderella,” she said. “Now Cinderella only turned into a princess with the help of a fairy godmother.
“It would be great if the SMC could be a fairy godmother for vocational education,” she said.
The SMC’s last ‘state of the nation’ report warned of a gaping chasm between rich and poor in the UK, and found that opportunities were stubbornly closed to those born without privilege, forecasting that it would take 80 years to close the gap in higher education participation rates.
Health inequalities, which can see working class people die ten years sooner than their wealthier counterparts, barriers to education for disadvantaged people, threadbare mental health services and deprived early years, were all found to be among the many factors holding people back.
While some research shows inequality has narrowed in certain areas, the respected thinktank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), found earlier this month that per-pupil spending on schools had fallen by an astounding 8% since 2010.
But does Milburn believe austerity has damaged social mobility? “I don’t think the stats show that it has, actually, oddly, because you would think that it would, but as I understand it social mobility has been quite flat for a long time,” she said.
It would be great if the Social Mobility Commission could be the fairy godmother of vocational education Dame Martina Milburn
Milburn says step one in her new job will be to encourage as many people as possible to apply to become a commissioner, the deadline for which is July 25.
Another priority of Milburn’s will be mental health among young people, something she directly links to the emergence of the gig economy and insecure work.
In 2018, Milburn will also be expected to pay particular attention to the plight of women.
From the slew of sex harassment at work allegations to the true scale of the gender pay gap being revealed, the last two years have highlighted unfairness across the board.
Eight in ten companies pay men more than women, but when asked if she thought tackling the gender pay gap was part of her duty, Milburn replied starkly: “No, I don’t.
“It is a completely different thing [to social mobility] and I think you need to be really careful about what some of the statistics are telling you.”
She added “women and men should be paid the same for the same job” but appeared to claim the media had skewed the issue, adding: “I have seen stories that say the men were paid more than the women in more senior jobs, but it depends on how you read the figures and the media report the figures completely differently.”
What would help women climb the ladder is boosting shared parental leave, she said. “Of course women should be at the top of their professions and should be able to get as far as they want to go and they 100% should be paid the same for the same job,” said Milburn
“I don’t think this is an issue with social mobility because it doesn’t just affect people who are socially mobile, but how you support women to be able to do senior jobs is a completely different thing.
“One of the things that will help is shared parental leave.”
Maria Miller, chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee, which found the gender pay gap is barring poorer women from climbing social and economic ladders, disagrees.
Miller told HuffPost UK: “Disadvantaged women face a double penalty: being poor and being female.
“Tackling the gender pay gap is a critical part of tackling social mobility for these women.”
When invited to critique the progress May had made since her inaugural Downing Street speech, in which she raged against “burning injustice”, including how BAME people being treated more harshly by the criminal justice system and white working class boys being less likely than any other group to go to university, Milburn replied: “It is very easy to criticise.
“As a country, we like to criticise a lot and I’m not sure it gets us anywhere. I want to approach this differently.”
But the decline of social mobility has some pernicious drivers that will not disappear overnight. Home Counties-raised Milburn acknowledges her path to the top started with a fortunate “Enid Blyton upbringing”.
She fondly remembers a life of “horse riding on a Saturday and church on a Sunday”, but after being schooled by nuns in Cambridge, she “went straight from seven years in a convent to Fleet Street” to work as a trainee reporter with Press Association.
After years at “various newspapers”, Milburn moved to the Catholic charity Cafod where she reformed its PR operation.
In 1993, she was approached to be the chief executive of the Association of Spinal Injury Research Rehabilitation and Reintegration (ASPIRE), winning plaudits for delivering its training centre on time and on budget and growing its staff from three to 100.
In 2000, she became chief executive of the BBC’s Children In Need appeal, before taking on the same title at the Prince’s Trust in 2004.
Since her appointment, the charity has focused much of its attention on helping young people who are in long-term unemployment.
Milburn said she is keenly aware that climbing the ranks, or even getting a foothold, is tough for those leaving school today. “The difference with my children, even though they have all been to university, is that it was much more of a struggle for them to get a job,” she said.
“My son came out with a first and it took him six months. I saw the toll that took on his self-esteem.
“It is a very different world to the one I was born into.”