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Social Justice

Social mobility Tsar Katharine Birbalsingh blames lack of progress on government chaos

The chair of the social mobility commission, who is also a headteacher, was questioned on the progress the commission has made under her leadership

The UK social mobility commission has been prevented in its mission of increasing equality in Britain by the recent revolving cast of ministers and an inability to get permanent staff working on the job.

Katharine Birbalsingh told the Women and Equalities Committee of MPs they’re “at the beginning, there’s been lots of introductory meetings”, despite being twelve months into her role as the UK’s social mobility tsar at a time when the cost of living crisis is stretching household incomes.  

“There has been some disruption in government”, she added, alluding to the recent revolving door of ministers that has prevented many civil servants from doing their jobs

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Birbalsingh was appointed by Liz Truss in 2021, when she held the joint roles of foreign secretary and women’s and equalities minister under Boris Johnson. Johnson also appointed a cost of living tsar, weeks before leaving Downing Street and being replaced by Truss, whose economic policies crashed the pound, worsening the crisis and leading to her resignation after just eight weeks. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak took over at Number 10 in October.

John Craven, director of the social mobility commission, added that the government’s own restrictions on civil service recruitment had prevented the commission employing permanent staff to work on improving social mobility for British people. 

Inequality is widening in Britain as wages fail to keep pace with inflation, meaning rich families with generational wealth are better able to ride out the storm while everyone else struggles to make ends meet, according to recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

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The way in which disadvantaged parents raise their children, including how they play, talk and read to them, was highlighted by Birbalsingh as a key area of concern for her, and the social mobility commission. 

“We need to change behaviours” she said, suggesting that the commission might be interested in replicating an Irish initiative that sent “someone into the home” of disadvantaged parents to “alter some of (their) behaviours”. 

Birbalsingh has been in her post as chair of the UK’s social mobility commission for 12 months, having been identified as a suitable candidate, but with concerns around her “relatively narrow field of experience in secondary education” and that her “vision for social mobility beyond the sphere of education was much less clear.”

The head of the Michaela Community school in north London had previously said that working class people should lower their ambitions and focus on taking small steps up the career ladder.

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In a speech that set out her “new vision of social mobility” back in June, she said that the people at “the very bottom” with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy are “unable to access higher paid work”.

Birbalsingh argued that under her leadership, the social mobility commission would move away from the “Dick Whittington” narrative of social mobility which encourages the idea that people from the north should leave their home town for fame and fortune in London.

She promised that the committee would focus on presenting a more “nuanced” picture of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to social mobility, because “social mobility has many forms”.

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