What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’?

New research on the ‘glass floor’ presents a striking way to understand socioeconomic inequality in the UK. It also highlights ever-present problems in translating such information into policy: we understand the size of the problem well, speculate on its cause badly, and produce vague calls for government action ineffectively. Our initial shock and enthusiasm for policy change translates into disenchantment with yet another ‘too difficult’ problem.

The UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has released new research on the life chances of the British population. It identifies a “’glass floor’ in British society” to reject the idea that people get on in life through hard work and merit. Instead, mediocre and lazy children in the right family will do better than bright and hardworking children in the wrong family.

This is horrible paraphrasing of the report, but you get the idea about how most people might notice the report in a hurry, have their beliefs about the lack of a British meritocracy reinforced, then complain that the government is doing enough about it. There wasn’t quite a public outcry (far from it), but you might be forgiven for thinking that the report gives the government plenty of reason to do something. The big question is: will it do anything new with the information?

I wouldn’t rule it out, but would exercise this note of caution: reports like this don’t speak for themselves or give governments a clear impetus to act. Instead, they form part of a larger pattern in this area (of socio-economic inequalities policy), in which we can speak with much more certainty about the size of the problem than (a) its cause, (b) how we should respond, and (c) who exactly should respond.

The size of the problem

The size of the problem is quantified well (it’s not a simple task to measure cognitive ability, class backgrounds and life chances like this) and easy to understand. For example, the commission’s press release states that:

‘Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids … children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability’.

The cause of the problem

This is when things get a bit trickier, because although the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, describes ‘a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain’, the commission is not entirely clear on who or what caused it. There is not one simple message about a single villain. Instead, there are at least two, and both stories are not crystal clear.

First, the author of the report, Dr Abigail McKnight, links the outcomes to the behaviour of certain parents:

“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

The keyword there is ‘hoarding’, which suggests inappropriately selfish behaviour. Yet, the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, is keen not to blame parents: ‘No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want’.

Instead, Milburn sort of blames the government for its current lack of proportionate action: ‘The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them’.

The result is a mixed view about the cause of the problem – perhaps it’s the fault of some hoarding parents (the especially rich ones sending their kids to private schools, getting tutors and securing internships for their children) and not so much others (the ones using their own skills to secure a spot for their child in a good state school) – and maybe the solution is to give other parents some of these skills to ‘level the playing field’ a bit.

The realistic solution

This is when things get even trickier, because the report seems to call for the government to do far more than it will, while giving it the ability to say that it is already doing as much as it should.

In the ‘far more than it will’ column is the call to reduce socio-economic inequalities (through wealth and income redistribution?), remove differences in quality between schools, and remove class-based barriers to University admissions.

In the ‘sort of doing it already’ column is the call for the state to intervene early in people’s lives to, in effect, train disadvantaged parents in how to give their children things like ‘soft skills’ related to forming networks and spotting opportunities.

The ultimate complication

The final, and perhaps trickiest, obstacle is about working out who is in charge of taking the next step, to drive this new policy agenda forward. The final paragraph of the main report is instructive:

‘If politicians are serious about their expressed desire to increase social mobility in the UK they will need to address barriers that are preventing less advantaged children from reaching their full potential and remove barriers that block downward mobility’.

It doesn’t say who the politicians are – perhaps for good reason. In areas such as social and economic inequality, it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy progress. If it’s mainly about economic redistribution, you can call for action from central government – but, let’s be honest, this won’t get you very far. If it’s mainly about training and encouraging ‘soft skills’ like ‘resilience’, central government might produce a broad strategy document, but its localism agenda suggests that it expects local public bodies to take responsibility for social outcomes.

The overall message is that it takes us seconds to understand the problem and call for government action, but a lot longer to decide what we want them to do, and longer still to find the people likely to do it. By that time, our attention will probably have shifted elsewhere, until the next report comes out and we do it all over again. Maybe this time will be different.





Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’?

  1. Pingback: What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’? | MemePosts

  2. Jennie Smith

    In the United Kingdom children start primary school and their formal education aged 4 years 6 months to 5 years 6 months. If you look at any table of world wide age at which formal schooling starts, you will see that this is in the minority and that only countries formerly linked to the UK do this. Most other countries ranging from Scandinavia to China have a much later start at age six to seven years.
    What happens to a child from birth to beginning to learn formally is the key to everything that follows. Get it wrong and there is no catching up.
    In Britain the youngest children in the cohort have a year less in a preschool setting that the oldest. If these children also come from a poor background they have hugely diminished life chances.
    The success of formal education depends on many things learned through play. Concentration , speaking and listening skills , the ability to interact well with others and confidence are all the key to what comes next .
    In Britain teachers who work in a nursery setting will have had a general training covering all stages in Primary Education in which only a small part may have focused on Nursery Education. It may well be that in a Primary school with an attached nursery the role of Nursery teacher is circulated round the staff on e.g. a biannual basis leaving little time to build any depth of experience. Nursery nurses will have been trained for two years.
    In Scandinavia these standards will have been well exceeded.
    The move from Nursery to Primary school also means a change in the adult / child ratio. In a Nursery setting this will be 1:10 but in a Primary School it will be 1:25 although there may be a classroom assistant available who is usually shared between classes.
    This inevitably means less opportunity to talk on a one to one basis , to listen to stories, to move and explore the environment meaningfully and to experience the outdoor world.
    The children who succeed despite this will tend to be the oldest in the group, to come from a background where reading is valued and commonplace, to have had a rich mixture of play experiences and to have had caring adults who have time to devote to them.
    There are of course exceptions but studies generally show this to be the case.
    So, if we know this why don’t we change? Well, apart from disruption while changing systems and the cost involved it has to be said that the children who will benefit most at present form the bottom 25% of the population,
    The rest manage better although I also think that poor statistics for child mental health and the difficulties experienced with bullying in schools and managing difficult classroom behaviour also stem from a weak start.
    The experience of failing from an early age must be terrible. It is no wonder that many children soon develop an uneducable tough shell.
    I believe that our discussion of education is far too polarised in general, formality versus play. A good education should be able to have space for both. I would never suggest that in later experience there should be no memorising or learning of factual matter. However eventually all knowledge must be applied so an enquiring mind is also essential. Play is a child’s work.
    All of this is well known. The elephant in the corner. The years from birth to the start of formal education are the foundation for life. Fix this and you fix much else.

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