News Insight: Social Care – Would A Legal Duty Help To Improve Social Mobility?

The government’s white paper on social mobility last week made the bold suggestion that tackling social inequality should be enshrined in legislation. Mathew Little investigates.

“Harriet Harman’s declaration of class warfare will bring national ruin,” stormed the Daily Mail, while The Telegraph fumed over “an act of social engineering that even the Soviet Union would have regarded as ambitious”.

The object of the papers’ scorn was a paragraph in the government’s new white paper on social mobility, – included reportedly at Harman’s insistence – saying ministers would consider legislating to give public sector agencies a duty to tackle socio-economic disadvantage.

According to research for the Sutton Trust, the number of young people from the poorest fifth of the population acquiring degrees saw little change from 1993 to 2002. In contrast, for young people from the highest 20 per cent of families, the figure has risen from 37 per cent to 44 per cent over the same period.

Should Labour’s idea of a statutory duty to tackle inequality ever get on the statute book, Christine Davies, director of the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children’s and Young People’s Services, will be busy. She leads the Local Government Association’s Narrowing the Gap programme, which is attempting to discover what actions will close the gap between vulnerable groups of children and their peers.

Partnership working

Davies says that, while local authorities cannot affect the whole story on social mobility, they can make a significant difference by working with partners in healthcare, the police and the private sector. She cites the example of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which is investing in the physical regeneration of schools.

“The evidence is that if you link those physical regeneration programmes with other regeneration strategies in a local area, you can have a significant effect, not just on schools, but in what happens in communities,” she says. “Through the provision of lifelong learning opportunities, and the provision of arts and sport, there is a very powerful effect on the level of aspiration in a community.”

Davies believes that embedding the aim of improving social mobility in legislation, as the white paper suggests, is worth considering.

“This has to be one of the biggest challenges facing us as a nation,” she says. “It will be key to our economic competitiveness, but also incredibly important as the key to community cohesion.”

Duty to tackle disadvantage

Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, says the new duty to tackle socio-economic disadvantage, would complement government plans to put child poverty targets into law. “There’s no doubt that a large part of the responsibility for closing the gap between the richest and the poorest lies with government,” she says. “But public services can make a difference too.”

Green argues that, to comply with any new duty, schools could make sure they were genuinely directing resources to help disadvantaged pupils, children’s centres could do more to reach out to the poorest families and free travel or low fares for the out of work and low-paid could be introduced on public transport.

“It’s about being imaginative at a local level. There are some really good practice examples all over the country,” she says. “It’s not like people are having to start with a clean sheet of paper, but this will force them to think about it.”

Some commentators however say the government must change its outlook if it is to make any real progress on social mobility. According to Neal Lawson, chair of the think-tank Compass, “if you want to address social mobility the major step is closing the gap between rich and poor. New Labour has consistently said it doesn’t care about the gap as long as the floor is raised. But you have to close the space between the two”.

Raising life chances

Others recommend deepening Labour’s incremental approach to raising the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Kate Lawton, researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), welcomes the white paper’s extension of existing policies, such as the expansions of family intervention projects and free childcare for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with every white paper,” she says.

But IPPR also wants Labour to be bolder. Lawton says ministers should commit to firm plans to make childcare a profession, ensuring that all childcare practitioners have a Level 3 qualification, equivalent to an A-level: “That’s important because evidence shows that childcare practitioners with higher qualifications have better outcomes for poorer children.”

OPINION – Iain Duncan Smith, chair, Centre for Social Justice

“Putting to one side the historic feud between Gordon Brown and Alan Milburn (who is chairing a commission to look at how to open up professions to a wider variety of entrants), the government’s new drive on restoring social mobility means that its previous claim that its record on social mobility was good has been destroyed. It can even be argued that we are a more divided society than 10 years ago.

The reason why social mobility has stalled is that there are a growing number of people in the lowest socio-economic group who grow up in broken families and in dysfunctional communities. Fewer and fewer people go to work, young girls fall pregnant with great regularity and education is no longer valued as a way out of their dependent lives.

This has to change and to do this requires us to focus on children between birth and three years old. Breaking the cycle of their dysfunctional upbringing and preparing them intellectually and socially before they are three would do the most to improve social mobility. Get the first three years right and in 20 years they will sail into the lawyers’ offices on their own merits.”

– Iain Duncan Smith and Labour MP Graham Allen have written the book Early Intervention, available from

1997 – “The poorest people in our country have been forgotten by government. I want that to change. There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build”

Tony Blair, Aylesbury Estate, south London, in his first big speech after becoming Prime Minister in May 1997

2009 – “In the past, young people were held back by limited room at the top. In today’s global economy there is no longer a national limit to the number and quality of jobs available to British people”

Gordon Brown, foreword to the social mobility white paper, January 2009.