Two cheers for Clegg's social mobility plan

05 Apr 2011

 The government deserves at least one cheer for its focus on social mobility. Today's report - Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers - is strong on analysis and brings together some powerful statistics on the limiting effects of poverty on educational attainment and thus access to better jobs and higher incomes

 It perhaps deserves a second cheer for pinpointing the areas where action is needed: early years education, schools, vocational qualifications, and access to universities. There are some (actually rather small) sums set aside for specific projects: the recruitment of an extra 4,200 health visitors, the £110 million Education Endowment Fund to help disadvantaged pupils in under performing schools, and the £150 million National Scholarship Programme.

 But there is little here to win a third cheer. The policy plans are simply a list of well-rehearsed and already announced plans, some of which (such as Free Schools and academies) could actually have a negative impact on social mobility if they increase social segregation in schools. So there is a lot on the report about plans to change the school system with Free Schools and Academies, about plans to improve teacher quality, and the introduction of the national curriculum review and the EBac. 

The best hopes must rest with the Pupil Premium. But this is being phased in slowly and will not reach its full £2.5 billion until 2014/15. And, while there will be a net gain for some schools' budgets, for many others there be bigger financial losses elsewhere.

Of course, the worrying element is the impact of other policies not highlighted here: the ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the impending rise in university fees. The so-called U-turn on the EMAs was nothing of the sort, as the replacement scheme is much more limited in scope and cost.

As for fees, there are balancing factors (the extension of grants and bursaries and the requirement on universities to push harder on fair access) but the big worry must be that fear of debt will hit hardest amongst those families with the least tradition of going to university. And even where students do continue to apply, many more from lower income families are likely to seek to stay close to home to save money. In many areas of the country, this will seriously limit their options for access to leading universities.

The full report on social mobility is here: download.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/social-mobility/opening-doors-breaking-barriers.pdf

 See also the BBC's Mark Easton with his insightful analysis of the government's reliance on 'policy nudge': www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2011/04/big_nudge_no_cash.html

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