Social mobility – judge the government by its actions not its words

by Richard Watts

Whoever decided that the government’s social mobility strategy should be published in the week that the budget cuts hit has a very twisted sense of humour.

Children and young people will be the ones hit hardest by the cumulative effect of the cuts announced over the last 9 months, which start to be implemented from Monday. While for many comfortably off people the cuts will, at worst, cause some inconvenience, for many young people they will be truly life changing.

Only a true cynic would suggest that Nick Clegg is not genuine in his desire for Britain to be a more meritocratic country. However, his Faustian deal to reduce the deficit with unnecessary haste will ensure that the country he leaves behind will surely be less “socially mobile” than that he inherited.

There is no doubt that social mobility slowed down towards the end of the twentieth century. The definitive study by the centre for economic performance concluded:

“On average, the life chances of a child born into a poor household in 1970 were worse than those of a child born into a similar household in 1958. In particular, we showed that the earnings of individuals born in 1970 were more strongly related to the income of their parents than those of the earlier cohort”.

This is no surprise. The children born in 1970 were nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power quoting St Francis of Assisi. The destruction of traditional industries that provided a career for many working class children was combined with a massive rise in youth unemployment in the early 1980s. In 1984 more than one in every four young persons was without a job or training, significantly higher even than the current situation. The area of North Islington that I live in has never recovered; because large numbers of the people affected have never worked since, creating a raft of social problems.

However, the same researchers also concluded that this trend had been halted, if not reversed, by the policies of the Labour governments. Alan Milburn, speaking on a government platform, said that: “long-running decline in social mobility has bottomed out”.

The policies starting to be introduced this week have changed this.

The introduction of higher tuition fees and the abolition of the effective and value-for-money educational maintenance allowance  have been well publicised. At the same time, a range of other cuts and benefit changes affecting young people will be introduced that, together, will have a massive impact.

The cancellation of the future jobs fund and massive cuts to Connexions career advice services will make getting into work will be more difficult. The shrinking of the size of the public sector will also cut off the chance for career advancement for many young people, as will the general economic slow down that it seems possible the cuts will produce.

Funding for further education has been cut and the funding for higher education has been dramatically reduced. School funding will be effectively frozen, putting many of the schemes that have so increased young people’s results over the last few years at risk.

Families with older children have been hardest hit by changes to child benefit. The budget for new house building, which is desperately needed by young people and whose construction might also provide a job has been cut by 60 percent. Housing benefit cuts will force more young people to live in a room of a shared house and rate caps will hit families who need larger properties hardest, forcing many of them to move. Giving councils the option to end secure tenancies for new tenants, many of whom will be young people, will add to the uncertainty and cost of housing.

Council youth services across the country are being hit hard as local authorities retrench to concentrate on their statutory priorities. The grants to councils to help teenage parents, disrupt gangs, reduce substance abuse, reduce youth crime, help young people with mental health problems and provide young people with positive activities have all been cut and un-ring-fenced, allowing some authorities to stop them altogether. School sports funding and schemes like free swimming for young people have either been reduced or abolished altogether in many areas.

For ambitious young people from a deprived background, surely those at whom the deputy prime minister is aiming his social mobility drive, it is now harder to study, harder to get a job, harder to find a house, harder to find productive things to do and harder to keep out of trouble.

It is as if the government has systematically gone through every area of their life and reduced or removed the help and support they used to enjoy.

For generation after generation, parents will have been confident that their children would enjoy a better life than them. This started to break down under the last Tory government. For all of Nick Clegg’s worthy speeches and documents this Tory-led Government seems determined to pick up where Mrs Thatcher left off.

Cllr Richard Watts is executive member for children and young people on Islington council.

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