From education to employment

Government departments failed to act on a third of Social Mobility Commission key recommendations

@SMCommission report highlights the disappointing level of government action on the commission’s key social mobility recommendations over the last 7 years 

The Social Mobility Commission has today (Wednesday 10 June) called for a new joined-up approach to promoting social mobility after government departments failed to act on a third of its key recommendations in the last 7 years. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak already having a devastating impact on the poorest groups it was imperative to tackle social inequality more effectively, it argued.

The commission’s new report – Monitoring Social Mobility 2013 to 2020: Is the government delivering on our recommendations? based on a comprehensive audit of government action on social mobility, reveals a disappointing level of progress.

The 52 proposals, made by the commission between 2013 and 2020, covered a range of policy areas including:

  • early years
  • education
  • employment
  • housing
  • health
  • transport

On a third of recommendations (31%) there was no or very little action, resulting in a red rag rating. On almost half (46%) there was some but insufficient progress – an amber rag rating. Only on a quarter (23%) had strong progress been made or the proposal delivered – a green rag rating.

The responses also exposed the lack of joined-up thinking and activity across Whitehall which is impeding progress on social mobility.

The commission concluded that a dedicated unit should be set up at the heart of government to coordinate action and ensure its recommendations were delivered.

Dame Martina Milburn, outgoing Chair of the Commission, said:

“The Prime Minister’s goal of ‘levelling-up’ opportunity would now have to take place in the context of the major economic and social dislocation caused by coronavirus (COVID-19). Social mobility has never been more important. It is the poor and the young who will suffer the most from the economic downturn.

“To succeed action will need to be driven from the heart of government. At present, there is no meaningful coordination between departments on the social mobility agenda, and no single force championing social mobility across government.”

Helen Barnard 100x100Helen Barnard, Acting Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said:

“The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the depth and extent of inequalities in our society. At a time when over four million children are trapped in poverty across our country, it is a damning indictment that so little progress has been made in improving young people’s chances.

“As we chart a course through this period of considerable economic uncertainty, we have the chance to redesign the systems that are failing children and young people. Boosting targeted social security support for families with children would have an immediate and significant impact on child poverty.

“In the longer term, if the government is serious about spreading opportunity more evenly across the country through its ‘levelling up’ agenda  it is also vital to invest in skills and transport, and increase the supply of decent and affordable homes.”

A Government spokesperson said:

“We are pleased the Commission recognises progress in areas such as improving life chances for poorer groups, boosting mental health support for young people, and keeping disadvantaged pupils in education for longer.

We remain committed to levelling up opportunity across the country, and continue to do all we can to make sure no-one is left behind as a result of coronavirus.

“From the start of the outbreak, all vulnerable children have been able to attend school and we have provided over £100 million to support children to learn at home.

“We also continue to invest significantly in schools and early years, alongside raising wages and increasing work incentives for the lowest paid families.”

They added:

“We are providing over £100 million to boost remote education, including providing devices for the children who need them most

“Pupil Premium funding – worth around £2.4 billion annually – continues to benefit the most disadvantaged pupils

“Our National Careers Service is supporting young people that have been furloughed, made redundant or had their exams cancelled, and our early years funding to councils, worth a planned £3.6 billion in 2020-21, is providing stability for this important sector.

“The Department for Education (DfE) is investing £90 million in 12 Opportunity Areas (OA) over four years until August 2021 to level up standards and make sure no child is left behind. 

“Low-income families also have access to Universal Credit which can cover up to 85% of childcare costs.

“We injected £6.5bn into the welfare system, including increasing Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by up to £1,040 a year, as well as rolling out income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters.

“Through our Transforming Cities Fund, we’re also transferring £1.08 billion to Metro Mayors over five years to improve transport links and promote local growth within city regions, investments will aim to support public and sustainable transport, reduce carbon emissions, tackle air quality, and increase housing. 

“We’re introducing nationwide measures to transform our infrastructure and help level up our country, like the £5bn funding announced in February to overhaul bus services and cycle links. This is on top of the significant £220 million investment we have already made to make buses more reliable and convenient.”

The report shows that prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, there was some evidence of progress in increasing life chances for poorer groups. More disadvantaged pupils were staying in education for longer and more poorer students were going into higher education and employment.

Good progress had also been made on supporting parents from disadvantaged backgrounds with help for home learning, and in eradicating illiteracy and innumeracy in primary schools. The government had also published proposals to reduce health inequalities in its NHS long term plan and made progress on mental health support for young people.

But the commission also identified several areas of ‘major concern’ where the government had failed to deliver.

Key areas where more progress is needed


600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012 but this is projected to increase further due to benefit changes and coronavirus (COVID-19).

Children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 45% compared with 26% of children in white British families. The government should be more proactive in addressing poverty overall.

Early years

45% of the early years’ workforce are on tax credits or benefits. Steps need to be taken to increase the status and prestige of these workers. The government has declined to expand eligibility for the 30-hour childcare offer.


At aged 16, only 24.7% of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and maths GSCE, compared with 49.9% of all other pupils. The attainment gap persists and will continue to do so unless there is a joined-up approach.

Post 16 education

There has been no move to give extra help to disadvantaged pupils aged 16 to 19 through a student premium. The government does not do enough to prioritise disadvantaged young people in this age group.


Half of all adults from the poorest backgrounds receive no training at all after leaving school. The government has not done enough to reverse declining participation in adult education and training.


Life expectancy is falling for women in the most deprived 10% of areas. Issues around health inequalities and race linked to socio-economic background have also been exposed by coronavirus (COVID-19) and need to be addressed.

Place and regions

Devolution to regions and metro mayors has failed to adequately tackle regional imbalances or improve social mobility outcomes. There is no evidence of cross-government working on social mobility.

Sandra Wallace, joint deputy chair of the commission, said:

It is disappointing that successive governments have only managed to make strong progress in one in four of our recommendations on social mobility. There needs to be a better way to ensure our advice is listened to and acted upon.

Given the damaging economic impact of coronavirus (COVID-19), the commission said it was vital to design a ‘recovery plan to meet the needs of the most vulnerable’ and set out an 8 point plan for the government to achieve greater social mobility in the UK.

  1. A common cross-government strategy to tackle inequality and promote social mobility, driven by a single unit at the centre of government.
  2. Socio-economic background to be considered in all public policy.
  3. A welfare system that ensures children are not living in impoverished households.
  4. A better social mix in schools as diversity helps the academic achievement of less advantaged groups in particular.
  5. An early years strategy to help the helpers. Childminders must be given a decent wage.
  6. Further education to be better resourced and targeted with attention given to those aged 16 to 19 from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  7. Improve apprenticeships and adult education so more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds get the training they deserve.
  8. Give the regions more powers and funding, so they can target areas of disadvantage and social mobility cold spots.

Steven Cooper, joint deputy chair of the commission said:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is already having a huge impact on those from all disadvantaged backgrounds and this will only get worse as the recession bites harder. It is now really important to have a coherent and coordinated plan to help the most vulnerable in the months ahead.

The commission rated the government responses for their progress on each question on three relevant aspects: the intent to support social mobility, the process in place to do so and evidence of any outcomes they achieved. Under the RAG rating scheme, the bottom third of scores were red, the middle third amber and the top third were green.

The Social Mobility Commission is an independent advisory non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the UK and to promote social mobility in England.

The Commission board comprises:

  • Dame Martina Milburn – outgoing Chair
  • Sandra Wallace, Joint Managing Director UK & Europe, DLA Piper – deputy chair
  • Steven Cooper, Chief Executive Officer, C. Hoare & Co – deputy chair
  • Alastair da Costa, Chair of Capital City College Group
  • Farrah Storr, Editor-in-chief of Elle
  • Harvey Matthewson, Aviation Activity Officer at Aerobility
  • Jessica Oghenegweke, Presenter, BBC Earth Kids
  • Jody Walker, Senior Vice President at TJX Europe (TK Maxx and Home Sense in the UK)
  • Liz Williams, CEO @FutureDotNow.UK
  • Pippa Dunn, Founder of Broody, helping entrepreneurs and start ups
  • Saeed Atcha, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Youth Leads UK
  • Sam Friedman, Associate Professor in Sociology at London School of Economics
  • Sammy Wright, Vice Principal of Southmoor Academy, Sunderland
  • Sandra Wallace, Joint Managing Director UK & Europe, DLA Piper
  • Steven Cooper, Chief Executive Officer, C. Hoare & Co

Related Articles