Social mobility will become “much harder” and faces a “dangerous” moment in Britain as the pandemic exacerbates existing issues and risks undoing progress, the head of a government advisory body has warned.
The impact of coronavirus could create a greater “lack of opportunity” – particularly among those from disadvantaged areas, the interim chair of the Social Mobility Commission told The Independent.
Steven Cooper’s comments came after the organisation urged Boris Johnson to extend free school meal provisions during holidays until Covid measures are lifted.
In his first interview since being appointed to lead the social mobility body in the summer, Mr Cooper urged national and local government to work together and “resolve” the row over the campaign launched by England footballer Marcus Rashford.
Asked about action by successive governments to tackle social mobility, Mr Cooper said that while positive work had been undertaken, “not enough has yet been done”. He warned: “There’s a very, very real risk the pandemic at the moment will undo some of the good that happened over the last couple of years.
“It’s making it worse for sure, or its holding back progress because it is impacting everyone, but it’s having a particular impact on those communities that have lower social mobility.”
Pressed on repercussions, he said it would create areas with a “lack of opportunity”, adding: “There’s a real risk – you see some of this already, particularly in the areas of low social mobility – where you have generation after generation who are stuck in low-paid employment, with little alternative optionality around them.
“That’s not a fair society, it’s not a good society, but it’s also not good economically both locally and nationally. We have examples of that today – that’s going to become much more exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.”
Mr Cooper went on: “It is a dangerous moment, and not just over two, three four weeks or two, three, four months. For all of society it’s tough, but for the communities where typically there is lower social mobility it’s harder because the impact there is greater, there is a less opportunity around which might be things like transport links.
“It will make social mobility much harder. The stats will show that there’s less opportunity.”
The commission, a non-departmental public office sponsored by the Department for Education, published research in September in a report called The Long Shadow of Deprivation. This found that in areas with the highest social mobility, disadvantaged individuals aged around 28 earn more than twice as much as their counterparts in the lowest-mobility areas – over £20,000, compared with under £10,000.
The report added that social mobility in England is a “postcode lottery”, and identified 24 least socially mobile areas in the country, including Bradford, Thanet, Blackpool and Oldham, alongside 15 of the most socially mobile areas, such as Oxford, Forest Heath, Cherwell and South Cambridgeshire.
Since the findings were published, the government has introduced a three-tier system of restrictions across England to curb the spread of the virus, with the most severe measures falling under tier 3, including a ban on household mixing and closure of some businesses.
Of the areas highlighted in the commission’s report, 17 out of the 23 least socially mobile areas in either in tier 2 or tier 3, while just two of the 15 most socially mobile are in tier 2.
Mr Cooper called on the government to “invest heavily” in the apprenticeships programme, transport links and mentoring support packages to alleviate the impact of the virus on social mobility.
Sir Peter Lampl, the chair of the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, also said: “As a result of the pandemic there is real concern at the widening the gap in education achievement between low and high-income students which has grown at an alarming rate.
“There is no silver bullet to rectify this. The National Tutoring Programme which provides tutoring for low-income children is a good start. But far more investment is needed such as significantly increasing the pupil premium which is money set aside for low-income children. This should go some way to redressing the balance and give low-income children the opportunity to succeed.”