From the TUC

Improving social mobility – are education and skills the answer?

13 Jan 2009, by in Society & Welfare, Working Life

The opening sentence in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the Social Mobility White Paper stresses that the new global economy requires an even greater investment in education and skills to support many more citizens to achieve their full potential. Crudely put, this argues that it is no longer possible for governments to tackle barriers to social mobility simply by improving levels of social protection.

Fulfilling the potential of each and every citizen in the new global economy is writ large throughout the document and a quick word search finds 72 instances of the word potential.  Interestingly, the word inequality is only cited seven times!  But for much more on the relationship between social mobility and inequality – and the current political debate – see the two incisive posts today by Richard and Nicola.

The focus on further reforms to education and skills as the answer to driving up social mobility dominates the White Paper. The bulk of the document is dedicated to the four key ‘learning phases’ that can have a significant impact on advancing social mobility – early learning and childcare, schools, immediate post-school destinations, and lifelong learning in the workplace.

Whilst commentators may debate how much education and skills can influence social mobility to the degree argued in the White Paper, one thing is irrefutable – during recent years the Government has put its money where its mouth is in investment terms. And not just for schools and universities (which still tend to come first in the queue for all too evident political reasons).

Early years education and childcare, FE colleges, and workplace training have all benefited from significant boosts in spending over the past 10 years. The big question is what will happen when public spending has to be tightened after the recession and whether these areas will suffer in order the maintain investment in schools and universities over the longer term?

A real challenge facing the reader of the White Paper is to disentangle new education and skills policy initiatives from reiterations of previous ones.  To get a quick summary of the genuinely new initiatives, the best starting point is to read the Cabinet Office press release.

There are many positive announcements in the White Paper, ranging from extending the current trials offering free childcare to two-year olds from disadvantaged families to the introduction of new £500 back-to-work training entitlements for parents and carers. And the recognition of the range and intensity of ‘class barriers’ (my phrase) facing many young people and adults accessing higher education and the professions is no bad thing.  The need to continue expanding high quality vocational training for young people and adults is also quite rightly at the forefront of the policy analysis.

But there are some major challenges that have not been addressed in the White Paper.  For example, there is no reference to the urgent need to tackle the persistent problem of poor pay and working conditions affecting many employees in the early years sector.  As the TUC and Daycare Trust flagged up in a recent joint report, Raising the Bar, continuing with a strategy solely focused on raising skill levels of the workforce is untenable, yet this is what the White Paper proposes.

However, it would be churlish to end on a negative note as overall the White Paper is a further policy boost for education and skills in the Government’s strategy to advance social mobility.  The big question is how much this strategy can deliver in overcoming other entrenched barriers that prevent many individuals from progressing up the learning ladder, whatever the setting. For example, the fact remains that employees without any qualifications are four times less likely to get regular training at work compared to graduate employees and this trend has remained relatively static over the past 10 years.