Too much focus on a small minority to get to the top, warns SMC chairman

The world of social mobility is too obsessed with a small minority of people from poor backgrounds who gain access to the best universities and elite professions, Katharine Birbalsingh will argue today (Thursday 09 June) as she sets out her new vision.

In her inaugural speech as chair of the Social Mobility Commission, she will say it is time for a radical change in the way the UK thinks about social mobility. Too often success has been defined as a caretaker’s daughter going to Oxbridge and becoming a top surgeon, she believes.

Birbalsingh, also director of the Michaela Community School, wants to challenge this traditional approach to social mobility. More attention should be paid to people moving up the ladder in small steps – from the bottom and the middle, she argues. These could include: those whose parents were out of work who got a job; postman’s son turned branch manager; the daughter of a nurse’s aide who became a teacher.

She intends to look at ways to create more opportunities in the regions too so that not everyone feels they have to move to London or the South East to get a good job. She supports the Leveling Up program and wants to ensure that education, skills training and pathways to work are seen as priorities across the UK.

“We want to move away from the idea that social mobility should just be ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom up – the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO,” says Birbalsingh . expected to say.

“We want to promote a broader vision of social mobility, for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives, sometimes in small steps”, she will add. “That means looking at how to improve opportunities for those at the bottom – not just creating elite pathways for the few – but thinking about those who would otherwise be left behind.”

Speaking during a event organized by Policy Exchangeshe will emphasize that there is no “one size fits all model of social mobility” and that there are many forms of success.

“If a child of parents who are long-term unemployed, or who have never worked, finds a good job in their neighborhood, isn’t that an achievement worth celebrating? Would it really be said that this does not count as mobility because they are neither doctors nor lawyers? she will ask.

Birbalsingh and Alun Francis, his deputy, intend to ask tough questions and tackle uncomfortable truths head-on. For example, they will argue that expanding access to college has not always delivered the expected dividends and has distracted the 50% who take other paths.

“What can we do for young people and adults who have not followed the path to higher education but still need a path to high skills and good professional opportunities? she will ask.

“And what more should be done for those at the very bottom – particularly those with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy – who therefore cannot benefit from higher learning and cannot get a better paid job?

Birbalsingh will also challenge the popular narrative that social mobility is getting worse. She will say that the picture is complex, but the Commission’s latest analysis shows that labor mobility has been stable or slightly improving for decades. There is less consensus on other areas like income, housing and wealth. But the SMC will take a closer look at them next year.

The SMC State of the Nation 2022 report, to be released later this month, will set out a framework to revise the way the Commission has traditionally measured social mobility. This will provide a more accurate view of who is going up, down, or standing still.

The new Social Mobility Index will track actual social mobility – comparing where people start and end, in their occupations, income and other outcomes, across the UK to show who is mobile and where. “That means being clearer about where mobility is working well – and being clearer about the different factors that help make it happen.”

Birbalsingh also intends to define the main priorities of the Commission:

  • Education – Covering early years, schools and universities, but also other pathways to work such as continuing education and apprenticeships. Birbalsingh wants to look at ways to help families and parents support their children to ensure they get a good start in life. She believes that parents are a child’s first teacher and we need to help parents know what is needed to boost their child’s development – like reading books to them.
  • Employment – SMC will go beyond the city’s large professional businesses, many of which already have plans for a more diverse workforce, to look at how small businesses can generate opportunity.
  • Enterprise and the economy – The Commission will look at the creation of opportunities, their geographical distribution and the role of enterprise in sometimes challenging social mobility hierarchies – all at the heart of the government’s upgrading agenda. It will focus on local neighborhoods where educational and economic opportunities are low across generations.

Birbalsingh believes that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed and that key role models such as parents, teachers and employers can provide the support needed to make this happen. No one should be a prisoner of the circumstances in which he was born.

“We want to champion a new approach, which sees social mobility as the process of enabling everyone to find and apply their talents in ways that they enjoy and give them purpose, and for our wider society and economy” , she should say.

For more information, please contact:

Jill Sherman, SMC Communications Manager: or 07384 870965

Emily-Rose Rolfe, Senior Media and Digital Manager:

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