What's happening to social mobility?

16 November 2016
What was claimed

The attainment gap in schools is narrowing.

Our verdict

This is correct according to the Social Mobility Commission, but it also says there is still a “clear and strong” link between income and attainment and that the gap widens as a pupil goes through school.

What was claimed

The Social Mobility Commission has said that social mobility is getting worse in Great Britain.

Our verdict


“In their State of the Nation report her government’s Social Mobility Commission today issued a damning verdict on progress. Things are getting worse. They concluded that the key drivers of social mobility—quality in early education, narrowing the educational attainment gap, and access to work and housing—are all going backwards under her watch.”

Lucy Powell MP, 16 November 2016

“I note that the Social Mobility Commission has reported today that more working class youngsters are benefiting from higher education than at any point in our history. The government’s invested record levels in childcare and early years, and the attainment gap as the report acknowledges has actually narrowed.”

Theresa May, 16 November 2016

The Social Mobility Commission today issued a report which concluded that in Great Britain “for this generation of young people in particular, it [social mobility] is getting worse not better.” It also said that it wasn’t just the poorest in society who faced barriers to progress.

While Mrs May and Ms Powell portrayed the report very differently across a whole range of areas, one issue the report raised seems particularly contested. Just what did the Social Mobility Commission say about the educational attainment gap? Can it be “going backwards” and narrowing at the same time?

The simple answer is that the Prime Minister is correct when she says that the Commission found the attainment gap in schools in England has narrowed. The report says that the difference in exam performance between children eligible for free school meals and their relatively wealthier classmates has decreased in the last ten years.

But it isn't quite that clear cut. The Commission also says that there is still a link between income and academic achievement which it describes as “clear and strong”. It also says the attainment gap increases the further through school a pupil goes.

Although it welcomes the focus the government has placed on the poorest pupils, the Commission says that “arguably” not enough has been done to wipe out the attainment gap  across all income groups.

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