Socio-economic data is key to measuring and improving social mobility - Justine Greening

Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle earlier this week unexpectedly saw the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, now Lord Cameron, back in frontline politics as Foreign Secretary. That it managed to remain one of the best kept secrets in the Westminster bubble until the very moment he stepped out of the car in Downing Street may be one of Rishi Sunak’s greatest achievements as Prime Minister.

Yet for all the reshuffle politics and the furious letter from sacked Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, the reality is that for most people, none of it mattered that much.

It didn’t change how much they had in their pay packet at the end of the week, or make their child’s school any better. It didn’t shorten the local hospital waiting list they’re stuck on, or improve local bus services for getting to work and reaching crucial public services.

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At least red wall MP and new Conservative Party Chairman, Richard Holden, understood. On his first media round he commented that “the big issue here isn’t around personality, it’s actually around policy decisions.” That’s absolutely right.

Members of the media photograph Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron (right) and Minister for Development in the Foreign Office Andrew Mitchell arriving in Downing Street. PIC: James Manning/PA WireMembers of the media photograph Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron (right) and Minister for Development in the Foreign Office Andrew Mitchell arriving in Downing Street. PIC: James Manning/PA Wire
Members of the media photograph Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron (right) and Minister for Development in the Foreign Office Andrew Mitchell arriving in Downing Street. PIC: James Manning/PA Wire

Long after the controversy over last week’s reshuffle has subsided, what remains is the challenge for the Government to show demonstrable improvements in people’s lives before it asks them for reelection in the next 12 months.

Unwisely, Mr Sunak has sought to shift away from the levelling up agenda that helped Boris Johnson win a landslide victory. His Northern MPs are right to be concerned because that is the agenda on which voters, especially those in red wall seats across Yorkshire, will largely judge his administration.

But the problem for all of us, whether voters or MPs holding a Government accountable, is how we judge progress on levelling up if we can’t measure it properly?

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As Education Secretary I was never short of statistics telling me how well things were going in our schools. It was centred on understanding the outcomes for children in receipt of free school meals (FSM), from lower socio-economic (ie disadvantaged) backgrounds. Without that data it would have been far harder to close attainment gaps and improve school performances. It would have been impossible to design the Pupil Premium policy that directs additional resources to disadvantaged pupils without FSM data.

We invest billions in education, developing the nation’s talent. But we know virtually nothing about the outcomes for people once they have left education and gone into employment.

We have official unemployment figures, but they don’t tell us how employers are doing at making opportunities more accessible to more people and what the outcomes are for former FSM-eligible pupils as they become adults in the workplace. Even the unemployment statistics are increasingly unreliable. So few employers are responding to the Labour Force Survey from which the unemployment figures are estimated, the Office for National Statistics is introducing new incentives to improve response rates.

How can we expect to drive change if we don’t even measure it? How can we target our collective efforts to improve social mobility if we don’t know where the biggest problems are, and in which communities, when it comes to accessing opportunities? We rely on proper data to help shape better outcomes for disadvantaged people in education, but we also need the same approach to understand and improve employment outcomes.

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So we need employers, especially larger ones, to track the socio-economic background of their employees from top to bottom to help us understand real outcomes. Some businesses are already doing this, including big employers in Yorkshire - for example Channel 4 and law firm Shoosmiths, both with offices in Leeds, but most employers aren’t considering tracking socio-economic background right now. We can change that. We know the questions to ask - on parental occupation aged 14, eligibility for free school meals, type of school and whether your parents went to university.

The businesses I’ve worked with to put employee socio-economic background tracking in place have gained real insights from the data. Some have found that they are engines of social mobility - connecting people from all backgrounds to their opportunities who then progress upwards through the organisation. Others have found they can recruit people but they’re more likely to leave than get promoted compared to their more privileged peers, so it’s progression they need to focus on. For other organisations, they may have a limited recruitment of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but once they are in the organisation, they have as good a chance as anyone else of rising up through the seniority levels.

We’d know none of this without getting the data. Last week I kicked off a project with a new group of businesses who will trial putting this tracking in place in their organisations. It’s important to explain to employees about why this data matters but it’s how employers can make sure they are fairer on opportunity. And different - more diverse - voices around the table makes for better decisions and business results. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do.

You might think this all sounds technical and dull but Mr Holden is right - policy matters. If that policy is about levelling up, measuring its progress is essential.

Justine Greening, who was born and raised in Rotherham, is a former Secretary of State for Education.