Tag Archives: Inequality

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

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

The first obvious myth about Scotland is that it is a land of milk and honey inhabited by a left-wing population that demands equality at all costs – or, even, that its financial advantage combines with consistently social democratic policies to reduce socio-economic inequalities to a level far below the rest of the UK.

In fact, Scotland’s social attitudes are more subtly left-wing, its devolved policies often diverge more in headline than substance, and – crucially – its record on inequalities does not match the rhetoric, of a social democratic Scotland, that we heard so often during the referendum campaign. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new inequality agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

This set of problems receives only sporadic political attention, but there is some potential for a lack of progress on inequalities to frame the next Scottish Parliament election (if the constitutional question does not continue to dominate).

For example, high levels of inequality in school educational attainment, linked to income and poverty, and discussed at length by Dani Garavelli, have prompted Mandy Rhodes to argue that ‘Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing’, others to argue that ‘Scotland’s educational apartheid’ is ‘is Scotland’s greatest national disgrace’ (Alex Massie) that ‘shames the nation’ (Kevin McKenna), and John McDermott (backed by evidence from Lucy Hunter Blackburn) to argue that these inequalities are reinforced by Scotland’s free University tuition policy. The middle classes are more likely to do better at school, go to University, and leave with no debt than their working class peers. In other words, the claim is that the Scottish Government is either failing to solve the problem of inequality or making it worse – a charge that would be dynamite if the constitution did not dominate political attention so consistently for so long.*

Yet, this conclusion has produced a second, equally problematic, myth: our obsession with Scottish independence has set back the inequalities agenda for years. This story has two main elements. First, the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball because it has been able to entertain its independence obsession, at the cost of paying attention to substantive social policy, without having to worry about the effect of its governing record on its popularity: inequality has worsened but its position remains strong while it can blame Westminster for any problem. Second, there is a simple solution to educational and other inequalities in Scotland – we just need to be driven by the evidence of success (for example, in other countries) and find the political will and leadership necessary to make tough decisions and stick to them.

Both of these points can be dismissed easily. First, maybe we don’t pay much attention to relevant policies, but the Scottish Government and Parliament do. In fact, there is unusually high agreement between parties on the need for the ‘decisive shift to prevention’ prompted by the Christie Commission, accepted wholeheartedly in government, and overseen by the Finance Committee. Further, when people do pay attention – when there is party political electoral competition and public attention to policy – it undermines long term policy strategies. Bursts of attention to political issues tend to produce rushed solutions to the wrong problem – more money goes to acute hospital care to reduce waiting times or to local authorities to boost teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, taking money away from the policies designed to reduce inequalities in the long term.

Second, the key problem that we need to face, if we want to go beyond simply shaming the nation’s or the government’s record, is that we don’t know what the evidence is and what policy should be. No politician or political commentator likes to admit that they can see a huge problem but don’t have a clue about how to solve it – yet, that is the problem we face. The simple solutions of media commentators are untested and their success rests largely on assertion rather than evidence. Or, when experts are called upon to settle the matter, you find that equally eminent scholars support contradictory solutions.

My new research with Emily St Denny shows just how far this problem goes. Even if there is cross-party agreement on the need to act, no one quite knows how to do it: how to define ‘prevention’ policies, gather evidence of ‘best practice’ (from home and abroad), turn the evidence into policies that can be ‘scaled up’ across the country, and demonstrate success for long term projects in a way that helps them compete for funding with high profile and popular quick fixes. What seems like an academic discussion about the nature of evidence and the mechanics of policy delivery is actually an issue at the core of the inequality debate. We show how foolish it would be to assume that the problem can be solved by attention and political will.

The latest version of this paper is here: Cairney 2015 EBPM and best practice 22.4.15 . It underpins a talk I gave to the Scottish Government today, and an academic-practitioner workshop tomorrow, bringing together the Government, Parliament, academics, and policy practitioners, to discuss how to move on from the broad commitment to reduce inequalities to actual projects with demonstrable success.

*This is also an issue that @chrisdeerin has been discussing for some time, partly to bash the Nats and partly to advocate learning from projects such as the ‘London Challenge‘. This is a broader topic – policy learning and transfer – that needs additional discussion. I discuss it (albeit tangentially) in some separate posts – such as  on theory – and in a previous paper looking at the transfer of prevention policies.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

Preventative Spending and the ‘Scottish Policy Style’

‘Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage; too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of problems – related to crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, unemployment (and, most recently, anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive. This aim may be timeless, and relate to previous policies directed at identifying the root causes of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation. It has also received more recent attention during an ‘age of austerity’ in which governments seek to reduce spending and/ or redirect spending to other areas (to address key demographic shifts such as an ageing population, which affect service demand in other areas).

Prevention has some potential to generate widespread consensus – to bring together groups on the ‘left’, seeking to reduce poverty, and groups on the ‘right’, seeking to reduce economic inactivity and the costs of public services. It can also be linked to other ‘valence’ issues, such as (a) the need for ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders at several levels of government; and, (b) a shift from short, often misleading, targets as proxies for policy aims, to more meaningful long term outcomes.

Our aim is to examine how that agenda (a) plays out in Scotland, which has developed its own ‘policy style’; and (b) how it overlaps with current debates on constitutional change. Compared to the other ESRC Scotland projects, our topic is less sensitive to a changing constitution – the preventative spending agenda has already begun. However, it is not immune to that wider debate: more devolution, or independence, would extend Scottish Government responsibilities in relevant fields such as social security and welfare policy; and, the case can be made for independence to foster joined up government (or, reduce overlaps in government responsibilities for cross-cutting issues).

A Scottish Government Approach to ‘Universal’ Issues?

Any country’s prevention agenda would face common obstacles:

Defining and ‘Owning’ the Problem. Prevention is a vague term associated with many different aims (such as to reduce service costs or increase quality of life in a population). It is difficult to know what prevention policy would look like and how to measure its success in a meaningful way (particularly since government policy may be one of multiple causes of shifts in outcomes such as inequality). Its ability to gather wide support is a double-edged sword, since it brings together people with very different aims (and some groups will have unrealistic aims). One could have ostensibly the same policy for decades, but pursued with different choices, about the level and type of intervention, and about the main driver (such as reducing inequality or long term costs). This vagueness makes it difficult to secure stakeholder ‘ownership’ – or their support may only be for particular aspects of policy.

Shifting the Balance of Power. Prevention may require a challenge to existing services, and produce opposition from groups with reasonable concerns. It may require some governments to give up their powers unilaterally, such as local authorities when they accept binding shared aims with unelected bodies, or central governments devolving powers in a meaningful way.

Short term Costs versus Long Term Gainsundermines Long Term Commitment? A shift in resources may be designed to produce better outcomes over decades, which may be difficult to measure, at the risk of highly visible costs in the short term. These costs may be financial (invest for the long term in the same way you would invest in capital) and/ or political (when existing visible services are sacrificed for longer term aims). A visible party political imperative (parties competing for office every 5 years may seek short term measures of success or failure) may combine with visible effects on public services (and their employees) and the less visible issues such as intergenerational equality, to disrupt long term policies.

Normative. In some areas, early intervention may be criticised as excessive intervention (such as in tobacco and alcohol control – or the extreme example of preventative detention).

Wicked. We are dealing with areas that often seem intractable, or too big/ connected to be amenable to a simple/ workable solution.

Policy Transfer and Learning. What works in one issue or place may not work in another.

Policymaking. Any policy is subject to the usual constraints regarding uncertainty (for example, about how policy will influence social behaviour), the potential for unintended consequences, and the need for sustained leadership and partnership.

The Scottish Government may address these issues using a ‘Scottish Policy Style’, regarding:

  1. The way in which it works with stakeholders to produce common policy aims.
  2. The way in which it seeks to implement policy.

To some extent, it has a reputation for closer cooperation with stakeholders and building policy delivery on trust in implementing bodies (when compared to the UK Government). Its consultation approach may be used to gather information and foster group ‘ownership’. Its approach to implementation may be suited to a shift from short term targets to long term outcomes. It may continue to exploit advantages in relation to its size, with smaller government departments more able to make links across government, and senior policymakers more able to from personal networks with members of key stakeholder and delivery bodies. On the other hand, reputations can be misleading and based on snapshots in time. Early cooperation may have been based on a ‘honeymoon’ period of devolution and a favourable economic context. Further, not all Scottish Governments have pursued ‘bottom up’ and long term approaches to policy implementation.

Emily St Denny (@EmilyStDenny) and I are interested in how these issues play out in practice, examining:

  • The academic literature on preventative spending in theory and practice
  • Written statements on prevention in Scotland – reports by the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and related bodies such as the Improvement Service and CIPFA
  • Interviews with practitioners – Government, Parliament, local government, NHS.

A lot of this work is part of a larger collaboration with colleagues in the ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, including:

  • with Michael Keating and Malcolm Harvey (@MalcH) at Aberdeen to link these issues to broader, comparative, studies of policymaking, examining the potential for learning from other, relevant, political systems and policies.
  • with the three Davids in Economics (Bell, Comerford, Eiser) at Stirling to examine how the progress of such policies can be tracked using outcome measures, and how meaningful it is to say that government policy helped cause those outcomes.
  • with Kirstein Rummery (@KirsteinRummery) and Craig McAngus (@craigmcangus) to examine particular aspects of inequality and unequal outcomes in areas such as age and gender


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics