10 November 2021

Levelling up doesn’t have to mean an end to social mobility


It may be Autumn outside, but our politics reminds me much more of Spring. With the pandemic receding, the new Conservatism is beginning to bloom. The recent Budget and comprehensive spending review are the latest flowerings of the Party’s new ideas. But not everything is rosy – there are a few weeds starting to sprout up too in the political garden. 

There seems to be a sense that levelling up and social mobility are somehow in conflict. As a recent Policy Exchange report put it ‘for social mobility to be fit for the levelling up era it needs to be relevant to a much more broader group of people’. I think this false assumption comes from not really understanding the two terms.

Social mobility is about an individual’s movement within the distribution of social status. There are lots of ways of defining the start and end points. The Sutton Trust tends to look at your chances of making it to what they see as the top echelons of society – see for example their Elitist Britain work. Personally, I am more interested in thinking about social mobility in terms of the life chances of the poorest – the OECD for example looks at what happens to the bottom 10%. Levelling up is a different beast, because it’s not about how an individual moves within the distribution of social status – it’s about changing how that distribution is shaped. 

For a long time, there has been a focus on social mobility and not levelling up. We see this with a drive for more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university (good for their chances of moving up within the distribution) but with a brain drain in left behind communities (bad for the local economy and the quality of life for people in those communities, relative to others). Young people branching out but moving away from their roots. 

The current trend seems to be to focus on levelling up but not social mobility. I think this is a mistake. Let’s think about Preston, constituency number 17 on WPI Economics’ recent index of places most in need of levelling up. It would undoubtedly be a good thing to improve things for the people of Preston so that their lives are more like those in neighbouring Ribble Valley (ranked 543). But there’s no reason why this can’t be compatible with also supporting young people from Preston to get degrees and move up relative to others. People should be able to branch out and maintain strong roots.

What we need is social mobility and levelling up. A better life for plumbers in Preston, and a better chance for their children to become paediatricians. My sense is this is probably closer to most people’s hopes for how our society should operate. Of course people in the bottom 20% want a better life, but they also don’t want to be stuck in the bottom 20% forever. 

In fact, I would go further: social mobility and levelling up enable one another, and you can’t have one without the other. Social mobility relies on some people experiencing downward mobility, and this is a much easier sell if its not such a long way down thanks to levelling up. Lots of people don’t want to lose their connection with their roots, so levelling up communities so that people don’t have to move away to move up is an obvious step. And how can you credibly say you’ve levelled up if people near the bottom still have fewer opportunities to get to the top than people in the middle do?

What could ‘social mobility with levelling up’ look like? On education and skills, you could invest in more HE provision in colleges, as happens for example at Wakefield College; and you could get stuck into the mess that is credit transfer to make learning properly flexible. For very large businesses with office jobs that have spent a year being mostly remote, do you really need a ‘head office’ with all the best jobs in the same place or could you distribute those jobs more evenly? This about spreading opportunity more widely, both in terms of where it is and who benefits from it.

Ultimately, my vision is a garden dominated by two tall conifers: social mobility and levelling up, side by side, dominating the view. Enormous evergreens that will survive any winter and provide shade in summer. These trees will not grow quickly: we must plant the seeds of both now.

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Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus, a charity that works to ensure disadvantaged young people succeed in school, in work, and in life.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.