Bend the twig to shape the tree – that’s the key to social mobility

May 22, 2012

We all love rags-to-riches stories. From Jude the Obscure to Britain’s Got Talent, we sympathise with those who are trying to make it against the odds. Polls show that nine out of 10 people believe Britain should be a meritocracy, where your income reflects your talent and effort. But only two out of 10 of us think that, in practice, the country today reflects that ideal.

Given that all three main parties say they strongly believe in social mobility, why do we feel so pessimistic? Why haven’t we made more progress towards equal opportunities for all?

First, we should keep a sense of perspective. Britain isn’t a “closed society”. Three quarters of poor teenage girls and four fifths of poor teenage boys don’t grow up to be poor themselves. But there are real problems that pass from one generation to the next. Children of those who have been unemployed are more likely to end up unemployed. Children of the poorly educated are more likely to end up poorly qualified, and so on.

Politicians’ fiddly attempts to tackle this issue have not made much difference – they have been a bit like trying to slay a rhino with a pea-shooter. But, as Alcoholics Anonymous say, the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one. With that in mind, the Government’s new social mobility strategy, launched yesterday by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, should be commended for setting out how difficult it has proved for government to change things. His report contains some of the world’s most boring bar charts: the columns plod on, year after year, showing little change in the opportunity gap between rich and poor.

So what might make a difference? In recent years, policy-makers’ hopes have been pinned on intervening while children are very young. You can see why. Children who are born in August are 20 per cent less likely to go to a leading university, compared with children born in September. Why should children who are exactly the same in every other way have such different opportunities in life? August children are the smallest and youngest when they start school; they are behind at the beginning, and stay behind. It is easy to see why: children who do well are praised, and so try harder, and pull further ahead as a result.
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Children from low-income homes are more than a year behind those from high-income homes before they even start school. And they too fall further behind. Couldn’t we help them to catch up before they start school? Research evidence suggests this is a good idea. Academics have found that we can get more bang for our buck by investing in early education, rather than in older children. After all, children’s brains are more malleable when they are younger: think about how quickly small children can pick up new languages.

In a sense, academics are just putting numbers on common sense. In 1734, Alexander Pope wrote that “as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined”. But although early education clearly has great potential, our politicians haven’t yet managed to really tap it. You could say that they’re digging in the right place, but haven’t struck gold. In fact, a number of government schemes aiming to improve children’s readiness for school seem to be a flop.

Take the Sure Start programme. Hailed by Tony Blair as “inspirational”, it was supposed to help children in poor areas catch up by providing childcare, education and work opportunities for parents. But despite the hype and the billions spent, it doesn’t appear to be closing the gap. The most recent national evaluation of Sure Start noted that “no differences emerged” between Sure Start children and non-Sure Start children on seven different measures of cognitive and social development.

Take another example. As part of the social mobility strategy, the Coalition is expanding free entitlement to nursery education. Yet the National Audit Office recently found that the existing free pre-school entitlement for three and four-year- olds had no discernible impact on their results at the age of seven.

This all sounds very pessimistic. What might work better? There are pre-school projects abroad that, unlike the schemes in the UK, have been given proper scientific evaluations. The Perry pre-school experiment in Michigan, the Abcedarian project in North Carolina and the Chicago Longitudinal Study have all shown that the right kind of pre-school education can change a deprived child’s whole life. For example, academics calculated that the $17,600 (£11,160) per head spent on the Perry project had yielded $284,000 in benefits, as the children who took part were more likely to end up in work, and less likely to end up in jail.

But compared to what we have been doing in the UK, these tried and tested projects look quite different: they were more expensive, more education-focused, better targeted on the poorest, and they employed more highly qualified teachers.

In contrast, Sure Start provides a bit of everything: childcare, health advice, education, employment support and other services. Margaret Hodge, a former minister for children, has said that “we tried to do too many things on not enough money”. Sure Start’s former director Naomi Eisenstadt has pointed out that the design of the programme was based less on solid academic evidence and more on the enthusiasm of officials for community-led programmes: “The core design principles of Sure Start were more to do with what government wanted public services to be… and not really based on evidence of interventions that had been tested through scientific methodologies.”

Likewise, the money spent on free nursery care hasn’t gone as far as it should because of the crude way government regulates childcare: the focus has been on the number of teachers, not their quality. For that reason, the Coalition should be piloting a new approach, based on what earlier studies have proved works.

Of course, even if the Government sorts out our toddlers, there will be much more to do to spread opportunity in our schools and universities. For decades, politicians have promised to end “snobbery” about vocational qualifications, but they have never really backed great projects such as young apprenticeships, where 14-year-olds spend three days a week at school and two days in work. Pilots started in 2004, Ofsted said they were successful, and children enjoyed being treated as adults. But the idea has never really been pushed.

Likewise, the idea that all pupils must go to university to do a three-year degree is being openly questioned. David Willetts, the universities minister, has been trying to create a more diverse higher education system, helping part-time students and encouraging shorter courses that people can do locally without leaving home. Given that a classic degree now costs up to £27,000, and differences in graduates’ earnings are widening out (with more big winners and losers), this is essential. If we aren’t careful, in 10 years’ time indebted students will be complaining about the mis-selling of university education.

There is much more to do. Social mobility is one of the rare things that people in all parties can agree on. But good intentions are not enough. Given that we don’t have much money to spend, politicians need to think harder about what really makes a difference.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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