Aat least the government knows it has a problem with social mobility. It’s about looking on the bright side of the announcement that controversial director Katharine Birbalsingh is her new commissioner. The corps she will lead, put together by David Cameron, has been a thorn in Boris Johnson’s side – as it has been in that of his predecessor. Report after report, the corrosive effects of extreme inequality have been highlighted – the gap between the rich and the privileged, the poor and the disadvantaged widening rather than narrowing.
In 2017, the first commissioner, Alan Milburn, led a walkout on the grounds that Brexit meant Theresa May’s government lacked the ‘bandwidth’ to tackle issues raised by entrenched injustice. Since then, partly because of the Covid, the situation has deteriorated sharply. Last year, a heavily worded report called on the government to increase the number of ‘opportunity zones’ receiving additional funding, and said that’ opportunities for children in England are always defined both by the family in which they were born and the region in which they grew up ”. . A poll last year revealed deep unease, with just a third of 18-24 year olds believing that everyone had a chance in life. More recently, former Durham-born White House adviser Fiona Hill warned that regional, economic and generational inequalities fuel populism which can, over time, turn into “a national security crisis” – as in the past. last year’s coup attempt in the United States.
Ms. Birbalsingh is an energetic character. The school she runs at Wembley, north London, is achieving impressive results. There is no doubt that his commitment to helping students compete with their peers from more privileged backgrounds for top grades and access to universities and elite jobs. But schooling, as the Committee on Social Mobility previously stressed, should not be seen as a panacea. Last year, research showed that in areas with low social mobility, up to 33% of the pay gap was attributable more to family background and local market factors than to education level.
Ms. Birbalsingh is an Evangelist for Distinctive and Disciplinary Ethics. But it is not clear how her educational accomplishments have equipped her to take on this larger mandate. Good grades can provide a ladder to the upper echelons of society for some hard-working teens. But the fortunes of entire communities and regions will not be turned upside down by a handful of gold tickets to Oxbridge or a medical school.
She has also joined in the attacks on “awakened” culture and accused leftists of racism, which raises questions whether her promotion to a national role has more to do with ideology than politics. With cuts in universal credit, shrinking education budgets, and a growing gap between those who own assets and those who do not, there is little chance that poor areas and people are “leveled” under Boris Johnson. As ministers seek to distract from this, voices like Ms. Birbalsingh’s, which emphasize individual effort and contempt for progressivism, are music to their ears.
Of course, decisions about jobs like this will always reflect government thinking to some extent. But the choice of Ms. Birbalsingh, following the appointment to key positions of allies including Dame Rachel de Souza (Commissioner for Children), Josh MacAlister (President of the Care Review) and Jo Saxton (boss of Ofqual ), reveals a narrow mindset. Good public administration is based on a range of expertise and experience. Confident and competent ministers look to those who will challenge and support. This government, however, is primarily interested in staying in power. And if its opponents are to suppress it, they must now find a way to refute the tempting story that if only children collapsed, inequalities would disappear.