Social mobility success stories are too focused on the minority of people that get elite jobs and positions at top universities, the chair of the Social Mobility Commission is to say.
Katharine Birbalsingh, in her inaugural speech at an event hosted by Policy Exchange, will call for success in the UK to be viewed in a different way as there is not a “one size fits all model of social mobility”.
She will argue that too many examples of working-class people being successful focus on high-level attainments – such as a caretaker’s daughter going to Oxbridge and becoming a top surgeon.
More attention should be given to people taking small steps up the ladder of success, she will suggest – such as out-of-work parents finding jobs, the son of a postman becoming a branch manager, and a care worker becoming a primary school teacher.
Ms Birbalsingh, a headteacher at Michaela Community School in Wembley in northwest London, will say: “We want to move away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom to the top – the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO.
“We want to promote a broader view of social mobility, for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives, sometimes in smaller steps.
“This means looking at how to improve opportunities for those at the bottom – not just by making elite pathways for the few – but by thinking about those who would otherwise be left behind.”
Ms Birbalsingh – who read philosophy and modern languages at the University of Oxford – intends to explore ways of creating more opportunities outside the London area, so that not everyone feels they have to move to the southeast to get a good job.
In her speech, she will add: “If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating?
“Would we really say that it doesn’t count as social mobility because they are not a doctor or lawyer?”
Ms Birbalsingh will ask attendants to the event: “What more should be done about those at the very bottom – particularly those with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy – who cannot therefore take advantage of higher learning and are unable to access higher paid work?”
She will also argue against claims that social mobility is getting worse. She is expected to say that the Commission’s latest analysis shows that occupational mobility has been stable or slightly improving for decades.
There is less consensus on mobility for other areas like income, housing and wealth, the Commission said – adding that it will closely assess these factors next year.
Later this month, the Commission’s State of the Nation 202 report will be published. It will set out a framework to revise the way social mobility has been measured by the Commission – an advisory non-departmental body of the Department for Education.
According to the Commission, the new social mobility index will track actual social mobility – comparing where people start and end, in their occupations, incomes, and other outcomes, across the UK.