Bishop Speaks In The Lords During The Debate On The Report from the Social Mobility Committee


The Right Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham spoke today (Tuesday 20th December 2017) in The House of Lords during the Debate On The Report from the Social Mobility Committee.

Rising at 17:27:06 Bishop Paul spoke for some nine minutes outlining his thinking and observations on the report.

The transcript follows.

The full speech can be watched here:


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness Corston for tabling this important debate.

I also look forward to/enjoyed the noble Lord Fraser’s maiden speech.

My Lords, the findings of this Report are of particular importance to the North East. According to Growing Up North, 4% of young people leaving school in London go onto an apprenticeship, whereas the figure is 11% in the North East. The inequality in provision between academic and vocational routes compounds the inequality between the North and South of England. Therefore, the current problems with the system are not just failing individual young people; in some instances they are failing particular communities. It is with the young people of my diocese and region in mind that I welcome the solutions offered in this Report.

There is a profound need to respond to the call for a more coherent approach to vocational training. The government must bring together employers, colleges, schools and independent learning providers. In particular, I want to welcome the proposal to move the transition from 14-19 and the need for major improvements in careers advice which covers vocational routes. This Report underlines the importance of implementing the proposals in the Post-16 Skills Plan and the Technical and Further Education Bill to do just that.

Here, we must pay tribute to the crucial contribution of Further Education Colleges in offering the ‘missing middle’ on which the Report focuses the chances they need to obtain qualifications of real value. These institutions deserve our thanks and they need greater support.

My Lords, the Government can rightly highlight the progress that has been made. That over 1.4 million more pupils attend schools that are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than in 2010 should be celebrated. However, whilst quality schooling is important, we risk overplaying its role in social mobility. As Growing Up North highlights, the North East consistently has among the best primary school results in the country, but the lowest average adult incomes. According to IPPR’s State of the North report, there are only 0.69 jobs per working age resident in the North Eastern region in contrast to 0.86 in Cheshire and Warrington. The success of even a coherent route into work is dependent on the availability of well-paid, meaningful work.

This leads me to highlight that whilst education is important it is not the most important factor in relation to social mobility.

A 2010 study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and widen throughout childhood. Even by the age of 3 there is a considerable gap in cognitive test scores between children in the poorest fifth of the population compared to those from better-off backgrounds, and this gap gets wider as children enter and move through the schooling system.

Likewise, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England highlights that: “By the end of secondary school, disadvantaged children are on average 19 months behind their peers.”

Child Poverty is critical in relation to social mobility. So the removal of ‘Child Poverty’ from the name of the ‘Social Mobility Commission’ is indicative of a worrying trend. This is now only exacerbated by today’s news of the closure of the child poverty unit and the apparent abandonment of the life chances strategy. This appears to confirm a focus on just about managing and the middle of this report to the exclusion of those who are the poorest and deserve our most important attention and help – that news maybe the Minister can comment upon. The report itself scarcely mentions the word ‘poverty’. What mentions there are focus on how poverty can be the result of a bad transition from school to work and how jobs provide a way out of poverty. There is insufficient attention paid to the impact of child poverty on the transition from education to work and social mobility more widely.

This trend is alarming for two reasons: first because poverty must remain a priority and second because excluding poverty from our social mobility agenda is self-defeating.

As admirable a goal as social mobility is, it should not be used to crowd out child poverty as a policy objective. If our policy is entirely shaped by concerns around social mobility and life chances then the society we are aiming towards is one which is unconcerned with the presence of poverty itself but that just wants to make sure the poor deserve to be poor.

Secondly, a renewed focus on social mobility- requires a renewed focus on child poverty; social mobility- even of those in “the middle” who are the focus of this report- is shaped profoundly by economic factors.

The Committee’s Report notes the impact of informal recruitment practices on social mobility, but we must also note the impact of a parent working several jobs and being unable to help with applications; and the impact of the anxiety caused by seeing a parent struggling to make ends meet; and the myriad other ways that poverty impedes social mobility.

One of the most pernicious ways is its effect on aspiration. As experience shapes a child’s imagination, growing up in poverty robs them of the capacity to imagine themselves improving their circumstances, all too often leaving an impression of poverty as inevitable or a particular profession unattainable – we need to help with aspiration levels.

An integrated strategy for vocational routes into work must itself be part of an integrated strategy for the flourishing of young people, alive to the impact of poverty on all aspects of a child’s life chances. To the extent that the importance of the world outside the classroom is ignored, any attempt to improve the options available within it will ultimately fail.

British young people don’t deserve a system in which ‘vocational’ is code for ‘non-academic’. My Lords, particularly for those in my line of work, the word ‘vocation’ is one charged with rich meaning. This Report points some of the way toward a system more worthy of that word.

My Lords some final thoughts. Social mobility, by definition tends to suggest that an ‘upward’ social trajectory is the right and best one for everyone. I have two concerns with this. The first is that we can only have greater upward mobility for those near the bottom if there is an equal and corresponding increase in downward mobility among those near the top. If the rich and powerful do all they can to protect and pass on their privileged position, then this can be as much a barrier to social mobility as a lack of education or opportunity for those in poverty. So downward mobility is not just sometimes desirable, it is also necessary in a more socially mobile society.

The second concern is this: Jesus himself encouraged his followers not to seek upward mobility but rather the way of service; foot-washing was to be the example and not a practice to be avoided or frowned upon. In all our pursuit of ensuring that whatever start in life a person has they do have equal life chances, let us not lose sight that some social mobility ’downwards’ is good for us all. As we debate just before Christmas let us not forget that we celebrate the God who chose downward mobility as the way to save humanity.



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