Helen Barnard, JRF

Coronavirus has held up a mirror to our society, showing us the best and worst of ourselves. The recent Social Mobility Commission report offers three lessons to help us build on the best and remedy the worst.

The Coronoavirus pandemic has held up a mirror to our society, in which we can see the best and the worst of ourselves. Across the country, neighbours, friends and communities have come together to support and protect one another, drawing on our common values of compassion and justice. Our government has stepped up to show its commitment to those values: boosting the value of benefits, paying the wages of millions of workers, halting evictions and rehousing rough sleepers. But the mirror has also shown the ugly underbelly of our society, laying bare the depth and extent of inequalities in our society, and their tragic consequences.   People in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than those in least deprived areas. People from Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Mixed ethnic groups are more likely to die from Covid.

There are many drivers of this, but some of the most important are set out in damning detail in the recent Social Mobility Commission report. In recent years, millions of workers have been caught up in poverty, doing essential jobs for low pay, with little security. Many of those jobs are impossible to do from home, meaning workers are much more exposed to Covid-19. A crippling lack of truly affordable homes has left those on low incomes stranded in expensive, damp and overcrowded living conditions, with high rents pulling people into debt and hardship damaging mental and physical health. Self-isolating is next to impossible in over-crowded conditions, putting whole families at risk.

Our immediate response to the pandemic will have consequences for the kind of society we want to see emerging from it. Our planning for the recovery must involve remodelling the systems that hold people back, remedying the injustices that have compounded this health crisis. The Social Mobility Commission’s report assesses our progress on opening up opportunities between 2013 and 2020 and offers three lessons for a just and compassionate recovery.

  1. Improving education is vital to improving children’s prospects, but it is nowhere near sufficient.

Allowing more and more children to be pulled into poverty undermines progress and drags them away from opportunity. Families need a solid base for children to thrive, that means a secure home and an income that covers essentials and enables them to take part of society. One glaring gap in the government’s response to Covid-19 is the lack of help for low income families with children. Our research showed that nearly three quarters of families on Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit are having to cut back on essentials (like food and nappies) and many are also racking up debt and falling behind with bills or rent. The majority of parents in this situation are also seeing their mental health worsen because of their money worries. That’s why we’re calling on the government to urgently introduce a lifeline for families with children – and extra £20 per week per child – so that families can keep afloat and keep healthy.

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  1. We cannot continue to overlook high quality early years education and further education when they can make all the difference to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Successive governments have focused on offering free hours of early education but done little about the most important factor determining the quality of children’s education when they are there – the quality, qualifications and pay of staff. Once they reach 16, young people from poorer backgrounds generally continue their education in FE colleges. But, in the words of the Commission’s report, it is ‘underfunded and overlooked’. Despite the success of the pupil premium in schools, there has been no equivalent for disadvantaged students aged 16 -19. The neglect of these areas of education has short-changed young people from low income families, it must not continue.

  1. We need a good jobs recovery, powered by smart investment in people as well as physical infrastructure.

In recent years, 4 million workers have been pulled into poverty. Too many are stuck in low paid jobs with too few hours, little chance of progression and high levels of insecurity. Training and skills can unlock opportunity for workers, but funding for adult education has been cut by 45% in the last decade and participation has plummeted. The government has announced a £2.5 billion skills fund, which is very welcome but won’t be enough to turn the tide. Significant funding has gone into apprenticeships, but too many are low quality or aren’t going to the people who really need them. As the government starts to revive momentum behind their ‘levelling up agenda’ across the country, it’s vital they match the ambitious investments in infrastructure with investment in people. Closing gaps on basic skills and vocational training and using capital projects to create good jobs. Tailored employment support should connect good quality jobs, targeted training and workers stuck in poverty, as well as those out of work.

The Social Mobility Commission’s report has come at the right time. We can reflect on the achievements and failures of the last few years, remodel the systems that have held people back and remedy the injustices laid bare in recent months.

Helen Barnard, Deputy Director of Policy and Partnerships, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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