Vidhya Alakeson

Willetts plays snakes and ladders

Willetts plays snakes and ladders
Text settings

Social mobility has become something of a hot topic for the coalition. February's Social Mobility White Paper made it the government's number one social policy goal. Yet arguments over tuition fees have rather drowned out much of what they have to say on the topic, particularly when it comes to education and skills. So it was interesting to hear Higher Education Minister David Willetts restate the government's case with a speech at the Resolution Foundation yesterday.

Willetts, who has been called the poster boy of the think tank community, was as thoughtful as ever – and he didn't mince his words. In a dig at much of the research on social mobility, he called for an end to "early years determinism" – the idea that people's lives are set by what happens to them in their first five years. He also called for more opportunities for adults to improve their prospects during their own working lives, in particular through more adult training.

The importance of that argument was reinforced by new findings published at the event. The Resolution Foundation's work on social mobility has focused on an often overlooked aspect of mobility – not the link between the outcomes of parents and their children, but the question of whether people can work their way up as they get older, within their owns lives. The Foundation has already published results showing that "long-range mobility" increased by 22 per cent in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. Yesterday's new research looked at what sits beneath this change.

Unsurprisingly, the results showed that having a degree matters hugely. People with degrees were far more likely to climb the earnings ladder in both the 1990s and 2000s. A person with only GCSE-level education was 35 per cent less likely to climb up in both decades. But perhaps more surprisingly, the benefits of a degree did not decline between the two decades, despite a 10 per cent increase in the supply of graduates. On the contrary, the downward penalty of not having a degree has actually increased.

As Willetts rightly pointed out, these findings carry at least one clear message: if today's adults are going to get ahead, we need to get much better at raising their skills. For Willetts, the coalition's expansion of apprenticeships is a large part of the answer. Yesterday he revealed new provisional figures that showed the number of older apprentices soaring, with the number aged over 25 for the first time outnumbering those at younger ages.

That, no doubt, could help. But the real answer might prove more difficult. One of the biggest lessons from the previous government's efforts on skills was of the limitations of playing a simple, supply side, numbers game. Pumping out more skills has not significantly changed the picture of low-wage work in the UK in the past ten years. One of the most concerning of yesterday's new figures is that people with A-Levels gain little advantage over those who stopped at GCSEs when it comes to their earnings mobility. Improving the quality of training – and not just the quantity – will be key if the coalition is to hit the goal it has set itself.

Vidhya Alakeson is Research and Strategy Director at the Resolution Foundation.