EVERY weekend families across Britain settle down to watch the X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent. We revel in the discovery of new talent, the chance for someone to come from nowhere and suddenly make it big based simply on their raw ability and hard work. Yet (perhaps outside the realm of music and entertainment) our society is all too often the opposite of this ideal of opportunity.
Social mobility is the simple idea that your chances in life should be based on your talent and character not your background. A sort of life-sized Britain’s Got Talent. And if you just stick to the headlines you’d think our leaders were united in achieving it.
Ed Miliband has, as you might expect from a Labour leader, been unequivocal about the need to tackle this problem. So too, rhetorically at least, has David Cameron. Even Nick Clegg has nodded along.
With so much political consensus why is the UK so bad at social mobility? According to the OECD, our earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect our fathers’ than any other country. That is a complete disgrace. And at age five, there is already a 19 month gap in school readiness between the richest and poorest children.
The problem is that politicians’ commitment to the end of social mobility isn’t matched by commitment to the means it will take to deliver it. There are three areas that I think a future Labour government would need to focus on if we’re to move from a rhetorical commitment to social mobility to a set of coherent policies and a credible plan to deliver it.
The first is to help all kids get the basics right. At the moment four out of 10 children from poorer homes are unable to read properly when they leave primary school. As long as so many children from poor homes are unable to even read, social mobility will remain a myth. Figures show that in the last five years the numbers reading well are actually starting to fall after years of progress.
Part of this is because our schools don’t have enough support to help children (from any background) who have fallen behind to catch up. We have to address this, but just as importantly we must rebalance the approach so that education isn’t seen as something that just happens in schools. As a group of headteachers in Batley told me last week, unless all children come to school ready to learn they will always set off at a disadvantage. And without parental support there is only so much they can do. This means we need bold steps towards better quality, more affordable child care - not pile them high, do it cheap childcare as per recent government proposals. And we need a new way of engaging parents in the educational development of their children. This can be as simple as reading to your child 10 minutes a day as set out in Save the Children’s new Read on Get on Campaign.
A second focus should be to help build the character of our young people. Recent innovation in the American education system seeks to ensure kids have more ‘grit’ (though if you’ve watched ‘Educating Yorkshire’ you might think that’s the last thing our kids need more of!). Schools, the thinking goes, should be equipping children with resilience and character as much as literacy and numeracy.
I’ve met a lot of teachers who admit that the pressure from league tables to do well in English and maths means they are forced to limit the emphasis they give to this agenda. Yet, what seems clear is that it is precisely these life skills – self-discipline, perseverance, a strong work ethic - that will not only help children learn but are what employers want. Too few children from disadvantaged backgrounds are developing these skills which means even if they do well academically they can still struggle.
The third priority for ensuring social mobility is to reduce the gap between haves and have nots. This is perhaps the most controversial area but political leaders are being disingenuous if they promise to deliver social mobility without addressing it. The idea that a child living deep in poverty whose parents don’t have enough money for food or heating, books or basic things like school trips can ever have the same opportunities for development as a more fortunate child is patently absurd. But because it leads to some difficult choices many politicians choose to ignore it, essentially promising to make you an omelette without breaking any eggs.
It’s not about creating an equal country, but it is about stopping the development of an underclass cut off from the rest of society. This focus could be a straight forward set of things like a living wage, supporting more effective pathways into work and an effective benefits system.
These things are all achievable but they are seismic changes to our current approach and will take real political will to achieve. If we can find the will I strongly believe we can still make Britain’s approach to talent a bit more X-factor (without Simon Cowell) and a bit less Downton Abbey.
• Jo Cox is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Batley and Spen. She is a senior advisor to the Freedom Fund, which works on combating modern day slavery and trafficking.