The Commission on Inequality in Education

This week saw the launch of the Commission on Inequality in Education, with a speech given by its Chair Nick Clegg at Portcullis House.

It has never been more important that these issues are explored in government and civil society.  Britain’s lack of social mobility not only endures, but poses an ever greater threat to our economic success. For years now, social immobility has been recognised as a key restraint on our productivity and a serious challenge to the UK’s future economic health. In 2014, 49 per cent of people from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds – those who at age 14 were part of a household where the main earner was employed in the top professions – were themselves employed in the top professions. For all other groups, the rate of employment in the top professions was 30 per cent. Conversely, those from a higher socio-economic background are less likely to be NEET at ages 18–24, at 21 per cent against 31 per cent for all other groups. Inequality in education sits at the heart of this labour market malaise. 

As David Cameron pointed out in his recent speech on life chances, and as we found in our Tale of Two Classrooms report, students from richer backgrounds can access a wealth of support, from mentors to tutoring, that poorer kids can’t. Efforts to overcome social immobility must focus on how to ensure kids from poorer backgrounds also get these opportunities.

Yet over the last five years, some positive steps have been taken, not least the work done by Clegg during his time as Deputy Prime Minister, which has in many ways laid the foundations for current efforts to increase social mobility in schools. Clegg’s introduction of the Pupil Premium has become an enduring legacy of the Coalition government, and the social mobility indicators produced by The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office are still a valuable touchstone for researchers today. His Chairmanship is fitting, despite the inevitable grumbles about his role in tuition fee increases.

Clegg’s speech also provided reason to think that this Commission will amount to more than just another social immobility hand-wringing exercise. It will seek to examine some complex factors, such as the inequalities of the teacher’s labour market – the success of Teach First in London hasn’t been matched in poorer rural and coastal areas – and regional inequalities. At the same time, the speech itself considered key themes which are characteristic of the changing shape of social immobility over the last five years: the rise in educational attainment amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils, the growing gaps in educational attainment between genders, and the increasing social immobility apparent in graduate destinations and earnings beyond education.

The strong opinions that characterise the debate regarding educational inequalities mean that difficult choices will have to be made about the direction of travel. One question which has already divided opinion is whether to focus on the impact of socio-economic background – the strongest cause of inequality – or to focus on a wider range of factors, and risk diluting that focus. Our Rising to the Top report on British Muslim representation in the higher professions suggests that even for groups where factors related to region, migrant status, religion or ethnicity might play a significant role in social immobility, socio-economic background is still the most significant factor.

At the same time, the Commission would do well not to ignore those non-academic aspects of education that we are increasingly aware have critical impact on important life outcomes. Relatively little is known about the impact of socio-economic status on things like grit, resilience and confidence, and with Character Education continuing to move up the education agenda, understanding these links is more important than ever. These issues surrounding social mobility, education and the labour market will continue to be a strong part of the Demos research programme in 2016.

Hopefully this cross-party Commission will move the debate regarding social mobility and educational inequality forward, and provide some concrete solutions that survive the next change of government.