Report slams 20 years of failure to improve social mobility in Britain

Successive governments have failed to improve social mobility in Britain and reduce the gap between Britain’s ‘haves and have nots’, according to a highly critical report published on Wednesday.

The Social Mobility Commission, a non-departmental public body charged with assessing progress in improving social mobility in the UK, warns that without urgent and deep-seated reform, social and economic divisions in British society are likely to widen and negatively impact upon community cohesion and economic prosperity.

Its report ‘Time For Change’ examines policies made over the past 20 years and assesses whether they have had a positive or negative effect on social mobility in Britain.


The report covers 4 life stages from the early years and school through to training and further/higher education and then into the world of work, and assigns a ‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’ rating depending on the social outcomes of policy decisions made during these times.

Worryingly, the analysis was unable to award an overall ‘green’ rating for improving social mobility at any of the life stages, with only 7 individual policies scoring a ‘green’ while 14 score ‘amber’ and 16 ‘red’.

While the report praises measures taken to increase employment levels and get more young people into higher education, it concludes that “too little” has been done to break the link between socio-economic background and social progress.

New social divides have been created across geographies, income groups and generations, the report says, adding that many policies introduced over the last two decades are no longer “fit for purpose”.

The Commission says it is vital that politicians learn from past mistakes, so as not to widen the attainment and income gap between rich and poor even further, listing 5 key lessons it says need to be recognised (as quoted):

  • successive governments have failed to make social mobility the cornerstone of domestic policy – so in future they should develop a strategic cross-departmental social mobility plan
  • long-term progress has too often been sacrificed to short-term change – so 10 year targets should be implemented to ensure public money is spent effectively
  • how policies have been designed has often been misaligned from the objective of securing higher levels of social mobility – so public policy should be subjected to a new social mobility test
  • public resources have not been properly lined up behind social mobility policies – so future budgets should identify how public spending addresses geographical, wealth and generational inequalities
  • governments have overly limited their scope of action – so in future they should be more active in building a national coalition with councils, communities and employers to improve social mobility

Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “As the general election seems to demonstrate, the public mood is sour and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind. There is a mood for change in Britain.

“When more and more people feel like they are losing out, social mobility matters more than ever before. Higher social mobility can be a rallying point to prove that modern capitalist economies like our own are capable of creating better, fairer and more inclusive societies. It is the best antidote to the growth of political populism, both right and left, that we have witnessed around the world.

“For 2 decades, successive governments have made the pursuit of higher levels of social mobility one of the holy grails of public policy. While there has been some progress, it has not gone far enough towards translating welcome political sentiments into positive social outcomes.

“In fact, what is so striking about this new analysis is how divided we have become as a nation. A new geographical divide has open opened up, a new income divide has opened up and a new generational divide has opened up.

“If we go on like this, these divisions are set to widen, not narrow. There is a growing sense in the nation that these divisions are not sustainable, socially, economically or politically. There is hunger for change.

“The policies of the past have brought some progress, but many are no longer fit for purpose in our changing world. New approaches are needed if Britain is to become a fairer and more equal country.”

Commenting on the report’s findings, Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said: “This report from the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission shows that their policies will not improve social mobility in Britain.

“School budgets are being slashed, Sure Start Centres are being lost and there is nothing approaching a skills plan that will let us face the challenges of post-Brexit Britain.

“Theresa May’s reckless approach to our country’s future will see a generation of young people losing out. The next Labour government will ensure that wealth, power and opportunity are enjoyed by the many not the few.”

Find out more: Further findings from the report can be viewed here.


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