London leads the social mobility league, but there is much more to be done

by Dave Hill

As On London contributor Sam Stopp has rightly observed, London’s claims to greatness are undermined by its containing far too many people who struggle to make ends meet. Changing that is a major challenge for the city. But there is at least some encouragement to be taken from newly-published figures demonstrating that the chances of London children from disadvantaged backgrounds improving their lot in life are pretty good, at least by comparison with counterparts in the rest of England.

The fifth annual report of the government’s Social Mobility Commission identified 65 local authority areas in England out of 324 as “hotspots” as measured against an index of 16 indicators covering educational attainment, occupation, income and housing circumstances. Of the 65 hotspot areas, a rather dazzling 29 are in Greater London – all but three of the capital’s boroughs.

At the very top of the list comes Westminster, following by Kensington and Chelsea, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, Hackney, Redbridge, Islington, Hammersmith and Fulham, Barnet, Ealing, Greenwich, Newham and Southwark. Not until you reach its 13th place does the hotspot league table feature a non-London name – nearby East Hertfordshire – and then come Camden, Hounslow and Lambeth. Meanwhile, the “coldspots” list of the 65 areas showing the least social  mobility contains no London boroughs at all. And the three that failed to make the top 65? They were Hillingdon (no. 71), Barking and Dagenham (114) and Havering (157). The full list begins on page 167.

The report says that “the huge gap” between London’s disadvantaged – defined (on page 162) as children and young people eligible for free school meals – and those everywhere else is “most evident in the first three life stages”. They are more likely to be “school-ready” at age five, they achieve “far higher” educational outcomes when at school and they are “about twice as likely to go to university as their peers in other parts of the country”. They are also described as being “far more likely to progress into a professional or managerial job as an adult”.

The education gap between London and elsewhere is well documented, but it is still worth dwelling on some of the statistics highlighted by the Commission: over half of our children (51%) who qualify for free school meals attain an A-star to C grade in English and maths at GCE level, compared with 36% of those in the rest of England; over 60% of disadvantaged children in Kensington and Chelsea reach the required standard at Key Stage 2; children on free school meals in Knowsley on Merseyside have “no chance” of going to secondary school rated good or outstanding, while in Hackney, synonymous with educational failure not so long ago, “all children on free school meals go to strong schools”.

London also has the smallest gap in attainment between disadvantaged children and their peers in the country, one of 11% overall compared with a national average gap of 18%. And in three boroughs – Hackney, Haringey and  Newham – it almost disappears completely.

At the same time, the report notes a “London paradox” in that the capital’s good educational outcomes have been achieved even though pre-school attainment is a bit worse than elsewhere in England and there is “substantially lower use of early education”. This is attributed to the relatively greater impact of learning at home and outside of pre-school settings in children’s development and to a combination of parenting styles, social capital and opportunities on offer in London, ranging from parent and baby classes to a wealth of museums and galleries.

All that said, the report thinks London could and should do better, stressing that “40% of low-income children are still not achieving a good level of development at age five”. Better pre-school learning and lower cost and higher quality childcare provision would help low income households a great deal. Again, it praises Hackney, where there is an 87% uptake of childcare for three and four-year-olds.

Where the news from the report isn’t quite so good is when it looks at the post-school lives of Londoners from poor backgrounds. The report finds this to be the case for English cities in general, but says the “main reason” for it in London is the high cost of home ownership, leading to “very few families owning their own homes”, with low-paying jobs being another important factor.

And this, of course, confirms things that we already know. In many respects, London leads the way in helping those who grow up in the least well off circumstances to improve their lives, but a combination of too much low pay and a high cost of living – especially housing and childcare – prevents too many from enjoying the full benefits bestowed by some of the best schooling in the land. The glass is half full, but half empty too.

Read the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation Report 2017 in full via here. All four members of the Commission’s board have now stood down in protest at what they see as a lack of progress towards creating a fairer Britain. More on that here

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