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Social Mobility Commission: State of the Nation 2021

23 Jul 2021

The Social Mobility Commission has published it’s State of the Nation report 2021, in which they call for a shake-up of child welfare benefits and significant investment in education to put disadvantaged children and young people at centre stage of the government’s recovery plan.

The report unveils in detail the impact of coronavirus on the UK’s four nations and warns that this will be felt for decades. Attainment gaps between disadvantaged and privileged children at school are already widening and young people from poorer backgrounds have been more likely to lose paid work than better off peers, it shows.

This report is a timely reminder of why the Levelling Up agenda is so needed and why we will need to think creatively and encourage and support local government, business and community to work together to drive locally owned development

Kieran Breen CEO Leicestershire Cares

Key UK-wide findings:

  • Disadvantaged young people and children living in poverty have been hardest hit by COVID-19 and could face consequences that affect them for years. Around 4.3 million children – almost one-third of children in the UK –were living in poverty as of March 2020. This is an increase of around 700,000, or 3.7 percentage points, from March 2012.
  • 6.2 million families could be impacted when the £20 uplift to universal credit is removed in September.
  • When the pandemic hit in March 2020, only 51 % of households earning between £6,000 to £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income over £40,000.
  • Furlough schemes kept many people in jobs but at a maximum of 80% of normal salary. Those in working class jobs have seen some of the most significant declines in paid work in the pandemic.
  • The young were the most likely to lose paid work irrespective of background. Young men aged 16 to 24 from disadvantaged backgrounds had an 8.7 per cent drop in paid work.
  • Since 2018/2019 there has been a rapid rise in professional jobs – from 45% of jobs in 2018 to 49 % in 2020. But a person from a professional background is still 60 per cent more likely to be in a professional job than someone from a working class background.
  • The growth rate in professional jobs is not evenly distributed regionally. Since 2012 some 40% of new professional jobs were in London and the South East. And people from working class backgrounds in professional jobs earn £6,000 less on average than those from professional backgrounds.
  • 56% of first time buyers under 35 are receiving financial support from bank of mum and dad. Disadvantaged families have needed to rent for longer. There are now more than 1.5 million families raising children in private rentals, more than double the number 15 years ago.
  • In September and October 2020, women spent 99% more time on unpaid childcare than men, and 64% more time on unpaid household work. 46% of mothers who had been made redundant during the pandemic cite lack of adequate childcare provision as the cause.
  • Young people were twice as likely to be working in sectors that were shut down than the rest of the workforce. Youth unemployment increased faster between Spring and Autumn 2020 than at any point since the financial crisis.
  • UK Government estimate that around one in ten of all renters in England are in arrears. 45% of private renters now rely on benefits to pay their rent, and housing support now fails to cover the cost of a modest two bedroom home in 67% of local areas in England.

The report also provides findings from across the devolved nations. Further to this, the Commission has outlined seven key pillars for recovery with detailed recommendations covering: geography and local power; poverty and living standards; early years; education; apprenticeships and adult skills; digital access; and work and career progression.


Geography and local power

  • The levelling up white paper should consider distributional inequalities within areas. Priorities should focus on greater powers for metro mayors, growth and access to professional jobs and the right measurements to track progress.

Child poverty

  • Mirroring work that has already taken place in the other nations in the United Kingdom, the UK Government should measure progress using relative poverty after housing costs as the benchmark.
  • Increase the rate for children in Universal Credit, legacy benefits, in child tax credit and for child benefits by at least £10 per week per child in the household; remove the two-child limit in Universal Credit, as children shouldn’t be penalised for being born to large households; reassess the benefit cap, to ensure households receive payment based on their needs, which could help the poorest families get by better; reduce the taper rate so that for every £1 you earn in work, your benefits don’t decrease too sharply, to help second earners, particularly women, to get into work.


  • Build three million social homes over the next 20 years.
  • End Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions, as part of the UK Government’s proposed ‘Renters’ Reform Bill’, which aims to ‘enhance the rights of those who rent.’

Early years

  • Expand eligibility for the 30 hour free childcare entitlement to all families, regardless of employment or training status; open universal childcare places for all two-year-olds; fund placements adequately, to ensure providers do not have to pass on basic costs to families.
  • Expand Family Hubs (currently 150 hubs across the country), which aim to provide targeted early intervention support; target them in disadvantaged communities; embed lessons learned from similar initiatives, such as using hubs to connect families to multi-agency programmes and offers.


  • Introduce a Student Premium for 16-19 disadvantaged students: Target funding at students who need it most, as they transition to a new phase of life. We already provide premiums from age 5-16. But disadvantage does not disappear at 16 and schools and colleges should be supported to close the attainment gap with targeted funds. As in schools, this premium should follow evidence-backed guidance but should be administered by school officials based on their needs (e.g. tutoring for disadvantaged students, hiring a new teacher, etc.). This should not replace the current bursary block funding pots, which serve different purposes.
  • Fund additional teaching time in post-16: This will enable catch-up and can be built into the existing school day, with accountability through existing mechanisms.
  • Factor in persistent disadvantage into the Early Years Premium, Pupil Premium, and the Student Premium (proposed above) and assess the Early Years Premium: Target additional funds to students who have been in poverty for 80% of their time in education; conduct an evaluation of the early years pupil premium by identifying how it is being used, whether there are any barriers to accessing it and what a fair value should be.
  • Provide funding to schools for teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) for mid-career teachers: This will create an additional incentive for experienced teachers to go to or stay at disadvantaged schools.
  • Replace SATs (in years 2 and 6) with an externally moderated digital portfolio of work: This must be shared with secondary schools to enable smoother transitions between key stages and assessed in order to continue monitoring attainment gaps. Primary schools should design these assessments in partnership with feeder secondary schools.
  • Use the end-of-year time for catch-up: Young people taking GCSE’s and A levels should be required to stay in schools after exams for catch-up. In the future, this time should be used to teach employability and life skills (e.g. CV writing, budgeting etc.).


  • Implement post-qualification applications: Reduce exams to a three-week period (which was the original plan for 2021) and have them earlier in the school year to enable universities to get results earlier.
  • Ask university applicants, students and the entire workforce for their socio-economic background: Universities should report on the socio-economic background of their populations. For applicants and students, this complements existing measures of disadvantage used in widening participation efforts and will allow employers to better target outreach efforts. For its workforce, it will help universities become more socio-economically diverse and inclusive.

Apprenticeships and adult skills

  • Close the disadvantage gaps in apprenticeships: The UK Government should ensure that those from low socio-economic backgrounds get access to what should be one of the country’s premier routes to better social mobility. Use the levy and other mechanisms to incentivise employers to provide more Traineeships and Level 2-4 apprenticeships, and to move higher level apprenticeships into social mobility cold-spots. The levy should no longer be used as an alternative route for degree qualifications for more privileged staff.

Digital access

  • Provide affordable access to devices and networks so everyone can engage in 21st century education and employment systems: Ring-fence a portion of the digital infrastructure budget so that skills and access provision increase proportionate to infrastructure spending.
  • Ensure everyone is equipped with the essential digital skills for life (as defined by the Department for Education): Ensure every child leaves school with these skills; include training and assessment of these skills in relevant apprenticeship programmes; incentivise employers to ensure they equip people in their sphere of influence with skills (e.g. workforce, customers and supply chain).

Work and career progression (for employers)

  • Know your workforce: Ask the key question to determine the socio-economic diversity of your workforce - ‘What was the main occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?’ – then benchmark your performance against national and industry figures.
  • Widen your talent pool: Target schools and further education colleges in social mobility cold-spots for outreach activity; recruit for skills and potential over qualifications and ‘polish’; move senior, professional roles and high-level apprenticeships into cold-spots.
  • Support employees to ‘get on’: Our research consistently finds that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds face progression gaps. See page 18 for more actions you can take to support progression.

You can view the full report here: