‘Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse for an entire generation of young people’
Social Mobility Commission, State of the Nation 2017
Just as MPs head off for a well needed break from Westminster, a recent flurry of reports on the state of ‘social mobility’ in the UK suggest that there is much to do for the policy makers and politicians who still believe in this laudable aim.
The Social Market Foundation, Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission have all shown that the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children remains large with progress towards closing it, slow.
Spanning a range of factors which impact children’s attainment from family income to geographical location and parental engagement, a clear consensus emerged around one key recommendation – ensuring children get the support they need to thrive, right at the very start.
What’s Britain’s problem?
The UK is one of the lowest performing countries for income mobility across the OECD. The Social Market Foundation’s Commission on Inequality in Education found that the performance gap between the richest and the poorest children has remained persistently large since the mid-1980s. Its findings tell us that how much money a child’s parents earn, which region they live in and their ethnicity continues to be more important in determining a child’s future success than their talents or efforts.
We know from our research that this unfair divide starts before children even reach school. A significantly higher proportion of disadvantaged children start school behind than that of their better off peers. The potentially devastating consequences of this poor start can be life long, and can even impact the life chances of next generation.
The role of schools and access to university in levelling the playing field has long been accepted. But only recently have we started to see any real recognition of the importance of a child’s early years. As these reports show, this will be integral to the government’s ability to achieve social mobility in the UK.
Investment in the Early Years – a solution?
Despite this, progress on closing the early learning gap has been far too slow. The Social Mobility Commission captured the severity of the problem: “If progress continues at the current rate, it will take 15 years before all children are school ready by the age of five and more than 40 years before the attainment gap between poor 5-year olds and their better of peers is closed.”
They argue for further investment in childcare and specifically a greater focus on improving teaching for the poorest children – something we have long campaigned for.
Evidence shows that high quality early education, led by graduate early years teachers, is one of the most decisive interventions for tackling poor pre-school attainment. Children in England whose nursery has an early years teacher are almost 10% more likely to meet the expected standards by the age of five.
However, while poorer children stand the most to gain from high-quality childcare, they are the least likely to receive it: children in deprived areas are twice as likely to be in childcare provision that is not good enough.
“Interventions that tackle inequalities while children are young have potential for the most lasting impact… given that most of the gap in educational attainment is created by age five.”
The Sutton Trust
Progress towards a fairer Britain?
If we are to tackle Britain’s social mobility problem, it is clear we need better support for children and families right at the very start.
While the government has signalled recognition of the vital impact of early childhood development on children’s future attainment, progress is slow.
This year the Department for Education published an early years workforce strategy which recognises the positive impact an early years teacher has on children struggling with basic skills and includes a commitment to look at growing the number of early years teachers in the most disadvantaged areas. This is a positive step but realising this ambition will need significant investment and there are a number of hurdles the government still has to face. This includes the implementation of the 30 hours free childcare offer, which could prove to be a real risk to the quality of childcare on offer if providers’ fears they will have to cut costs materialise.
The government must ensure it has a long-term plan to secure quality in the early years and it must put the early years at the heart of its social mobility agenda. With the uncertainty of Brexit and an increasingly fraught political environment looming, it’s vital not to lose sight of this critical issue – our prosperity depends on it.