Social Mobility Commission

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The Social Mobility Commission (SMC),[1] formerly the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2012–16) and originally the Child Poverty Commission (2010–12), is an advisory non-departmental public body of the Department for Education (DfE) in England.

Current Commissioners[edit]

  • Sandra Wallace, Co-Chair
  • Steven Cooper, Co-Chair
  • Saeed Atcha MBE, Commissioner - Young People and Vulnerable Groups
  • Alastair Da Costa, Commissioner - Adult Skills and Further Education
  • Pippa Dunn, Commissioner - Enterprise and Small Business
  • Sam Friedman, Commissioner - Data, Insight and Downward Mobility
  • Harvey Matthewson, Commissioner - Disability and Health
  • Jessica Oghenegweke, Commissioner - Early Years and Families
  • Farrah Storr, Commissioner - Culture, Arts and Media
  • Jody Walker, Commissioner - Employment, Progression and Housing
  • Liz Williams MBE, Commissioner - Digital and the Future of Work
  • Sammy Wright, Commissioner - Schools and Higher Education


The SMC "monitors progress towards improving social mobility in the UK, and promotes social mobility in England".[2] As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty (SMCP) Commission, it had "monitor[ed] the progress of government and others in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom".[3]

Because education in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter with each of the countries of the United Kingdom having separate systems under separate governments, the SMC has a remit to promote social mobility in England but only to monitor progress towards improving social mobility in the other countries of the United Kingdom. In Scotland an equivalent body is the Social Justice and Fairness Commission announced by Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of the Scottish Government in April 2019.[4]

Four specific responsibilities are listed on the SMC's website.[5] These are:

  • publishing an annual report setting out its views on the progress made towards improving social mobility in the United Kingdom.
  • promoting social mobility in England, for example, by challenging employers, the professions, universities and schools to play their part in promoting social mobility.
  • carrying out and publishing research in relation to social mobility.
  • providing advice to ministers (at their request) on how to improve social mobility in England, with this advice then being published.

Creation and Renaming[edit]

The body was created by chapter 9, section 8 of the Child Poverty Act 2010 (also known as the Life Chances Act), which required the establishment of an independent Child Poverty Commission to monitor the effectiveness of the Government's then-yet-to-be-published Child Poverty Strategy.[6] It was renamed as the SMCP Commission by the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and its name was changed to the Social Mobility Commission by chapter 7, section 6 of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.[7][8] From 2012 to 2017 the Chair of the Commission was Alan Milburn.

Renaming as the SMCP Commission[edit]

In April 2011, when the Government's Child Poverty Strategy was published, it announced (p. 22, §1.41; p. 66, §5.21) that the Child Poverty Act would be amended so that the Child Poverty Commission would "be replaced by a new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission". The Commission's "broader scope" incorporating social mobility was described in the Strategy as "the Government's new approach", designed "to ensure that the Commission considers the issue of child poverty within the wider context of children's life chances and inter-generational poverty" and "the crucial links between child poverty, children's life chances and social mobility". The SMCP Commission's role was described as being "to monitor progress against the broad range of child poverty, life chances and social mobility indicators, towards the end goal of eradicating child poverty."

Renaming as the SMC[edit]

In July 2015 a Commons statement on the renaming of the Commission as the SMC was made by Iain Duncan Smith[nb 1] as Work and Pensions Secretary: "Governments will no longer focus on just moving families above a poverty line. Instead, we want to focus on making a meaningful change to children’s lives by extending opportunity for all, so that both they and their children can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances."[10]

Academic critiques of renaming[edit]

In semantic terms the 2011 name-change was criticised for putting together the terms "child poverty" and "social mobility" without addressing the potential "internal contradictions" of trying to deal with both at the same time, or specifying "the relative priority or importance of the two issues".[11]

In a political studies paper published in the Political Quarterly in 2012, the renaming was interpreted ideologically as a covert rejection of any aspirations regarding child poverty. Noting the Commission's shift from child poverty per se to "the broad range of child poverty, life chances and social mobility indicators", the paper argued that: "While continuing to pay lip service to the goal of ending child poverty, much of the government's energy has been devoted to trying to redefine the problem of poverty, moving beyond what it sees as a narrow preoccupation with relative low income." Severely criticising this scope creep as a climbdown from the principles of the Child Poverty Act, the paper argued: "In truth, neither the letter nor the spirit of the law has been fully adhered to, and only a lack of sustained public or media attention has spared the government the embarrassment of anyone noticing how far its policy and strategy falls short of its professed goals."[12]

Apart from this push factor away from ending child poverty, it has also been theorised sociologically that the pull towards headlining social mobility in government policy during the 2010s occurred due to growing "underclass anxiety" about the political and social actions of the economically disadvantaged, especially following the 2011 England riots and latterly the vote for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum.[13] In this context, the SMC has been seen to be part of a trend among governmental agencies towards portraying social mobility simplistically (and conveniently, in this view) as a set of "component pieces which can be tackled with specific ameliorant policies", and shying away from acknowledging (more accurately, in this view) how "the class system" creates a fundamental structure of inequality.[14] This trend in governmental outlook has been critiqued as "the New Mobility discourse".[15][16]

December 2017–December 2018[edit]


In December 2017 Milburn and his three fellow Commissioners resigned. Milburn's letter of resignation, dated 2 December, explained to Prime Minister Theresa May the reasons for their decision, including roles on the Commission being vacant for almost two years and his belief that the Government was "unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda".[17] The letter was published in The Guardian.[18]

The Future of the Social Mobility Commission[edit]

In March 2018 the Commons Education Committee published The Future of the Social Mobility Commission. The report recommended that the Commission should be renamed as the Social Justice Commission, and that there should be a minister for social justice/social mobility. It also recommended that the Commission should always have at least seven members in addition to the Chair, and have an extended remit to:

  • publish social justice impact assessments on government policies and proposals
  • actively advise Ministers on how to improve social justice in England, rather than advising only at their request

Robert Halfon as the Committee's Chair argued that the extended remit would give the Commission "real teeth" as "a new social justice body in the heart of Downing Street with the levers and powers to coordinate action to drive forward initiatives and implement solutions". He argued that renaming the SMC as the Social Justice Commission would "ensure [that the Commission is] not just focusing on those already on the ladder but bringing them to the ladder and making sure we are there if they fall".[19]

Government response[edit]

In May 2018 the Government published its response, which rejected the Committee's recommendations.

Recommendation Response Explanation
that the Commission should be renamed as the Social Justice Commission. Rejected that the terms 'social justice' and 'social mobility' are "intrinsically linked": "Social justice is a term which has come to denote a specific focus on the most deprived in society, making sure they have the opportunities to succeed enjoyed by others and are not held back by their circumstances. Social mobility–making sure that someone's background does not determine their future chances in life–therefore must have social justice at its core" (p. 6).
that the Commission should have an extended remit to publish social justice impact assessments on government policies and proposals, and actively advise Ministers on how to improve social justice in England, rather than advising only at their request. Rejected "that [government] departments themselves are best placed to consider the impact of policy and legislative proposals on social justice, as they are the experts on their policy areas" (p. 7).
that there should be a minister for social justice/social mobility. Rejected that the responsibility was already covered by Nadhim Zahawi as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, and that Damian Hinds as Education Secretary was "absolutely committed" to social mobility, having previously chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Mobility (p. 9).

The Government's response was criticised by Halfon: "We called for a beefed-up Commission with the resources, direction and teeth needed to tackle society’s burning injustices but, in its response, the Government has sadly failed to seize this opportunity."[20][21]


Alongside its response, the Government announced via Hinds that Martina Milburn (not a family relation of Alan Milburn) was its preferred candidate to succeed Alan Milburn as the Chair of the Commission.[22] She was confirmed as Chair in July, having been questioned by the Education Committee that month.[23][24] Twelve fellow commissioners were appointed in October.[25]

In December 2018 the SMC was relaunched, with an announcement that the Commission had been awarded an additional £2m of funding by the DfE.[26][27]

Remuneration of Chair[edit]

Upon the announcement of Martina Milburn as the Government's preferred candidate in May 2018 the role of Chair was announced as unremunerated, as had been the case under Alan Milburn.[28] However, upon the relaunch of the SMC in December 2018 it was announced that, in accordance with the greater responsibilities arising from the Commission's new budget, the Education Secretary had decided to remunerate the role.[29]



In June 2019 the SMC was criticised by the Education Committee.[30] Alleged failings included a lack of diversity in its commissioners, an over-emphasis on research rather than action, and a lack of contact with the Education Secretary.[31]


The Commission has been praised for identifying "the social closure at the upper echelons of society and the isolation of those at the bottom" as key issues, thereby "recognising where the real 'problem of mobility' lies".[32] However, it has been criticised for apparent naivety in its individualistic belief in "the possibility of [personal] exertion generating social mobility" and consequent reliance on "individualistic explanations [of how to improve social mobility] based on personal qualities and aspirations".[33][34]

It has also been criticised for viewing education as a silver bullet for social mobility, and therefore focusing excessively on school effectiveness and the behaviour-management of pupils, teachers and parents.[35][36] A critical discourse analysis of Commission's report Cracking the Code published in the Journal of Education Policy in 2018 found that its recommendations relied heavily on the 'marginal gains' philosophy associated with Dave Brailsford, and questioned the implementation of such a philosophy in everyday school life.[37]

It had earlier been noted that the New Mobility discourse was concerned with upward mobility among the deserving poor without properly considering the accompanying need for downward mobility among the undeserving rich.[38] This lack was addressed by the Commission's report Downward Mobility, Opportunity Hoarding and the Glass Floor, which acknowledged and discussed the issue (pp. i-ii).

Social Mobility Index and Opportunity Areas[edit]

Social Mobility Index[edit]

In January 2016 the Commission produced a Social Mobility Index of children's life chances in different local authority areas, including data published as a MS Excel spreadsheet, with an update to the data published in a similar spreadsheet in November 2017.[39][40] The data was translated by Parliament into a "Social Mobility Index by Constituency" in October 2018.[41]

Opportunity Areas[edit]

The Commission's Index was also used by the DfE to designate "opportunity areas" that would receive extra government funding "to address the biggest challenges they face". Six opportunity areas were announced in October 2016 (West Somerset, Norwich, Blackpool, Scarborough/North Yorkshire Coast), Derby and Oldham) and a further six in January 2017 (Bradford, Doncaster, Fenland & East Cambridgeshire, Hastings, Ipswich and Stoke-on-Trent).[42][43]

In October 2017 the DfE published a "delivery plan" for each opportunity area:[44]

An Evaluation of the "set-up phase" of the opportunity areas programme was published alongside a Selection of Case Studies in October 2018.

Although only indirectly responsible for the scheme, the SMC maintained an active interest, visiting Blackpool and Oldham as part of a "north west tour" in October 2019.[45][46]

Other Commission Publications[edit]

Publications produced by the Commission are searchable on its website.[47]

Annual reports[edit]

The Commission has produced "State of the Nation" reports for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018–19.

Single-issue reports published as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission[edit]

Single-issue reports published as the SMC prior to December 2017 resignations[edit]

Single-issue reports published following December 2018 relaunch[edit]


  1. ^ "Social Mobility Commission". HM Government. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  2. ^ Social Mobility Commission. "About us". HM Government. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  3. ^ "Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission". HM Government. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  4. ^ "Nicola Sturgeon – 2019 speech at SNP Conference". UKPOL Political Speech Archive. 30 April 2018. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  5. ^ Social Mobility Commission. "Responsibilities". HM Government. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  6. ^ "Child Poverty Act 2010",, The National Archives, 25 March 2010, 2010 c. 9, retrieved 28 October 2019
  7. ^ "Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016",, The National Archives, 16 May 2016, 2016 c. 7, retrieved 28 October 2019
  8. ^ House of Commons Education Committee (22 March 2018). "Introduction §1". The Future of the Social Mobility Commission (Report). London: House of Commons. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  9. ^ Bamfield 2012, p. 831
  10. ^ Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1 July 2015). "Child Poverty". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. col. 1506.
  11. ^ Atherton 2016, p. 57
  12. ^ Bamfield 2012, p. 832
  13. ^ Payne 2017, p. 87
  14. ^ Payne 2012, p. 69
  15. ^ Payne 2012
  16. ^ Payne 2017
  17. ^ House of Commons Education Committee (22 March 2018). "Introduction §3". The Future of the Social Mobility Commission (Report). London: House of Commons. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  18. ^ Milburn, Alan (2 December 2017). "The government is unable to commit to the social mobility challenge". Guardian. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  19. ^ Halfon, Robert (23 March 2018). "Robert Halfon MP: To ensure the PM's words have a bite, the Social Mobility Commission must have real teeth". PoliticsHome. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  20. ^ House of Commons Education Committee (23 May 2018). "Robert Halfon MP comments on Government response to report". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  21. ^ Staufenberg, Jess (23 May 2018). "Social Mobility Commission gets new chair – but no new powers". Schools Week. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  22. ^ HM Government (23 May 2018). "New Chair of the Social Mobility Commission recommended". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  23. ^ HM Government (13 July 2018). "New Chair of the Social Mobility Commission confirmed". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  24. ^ Skills Commission (11 July 2018). "Milburn to Milburn: All change for the Social Mobility Commission?". Policy Connect. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  25. ^ HM Government (31 October 2018). "Education Secretary appoints new Social Mobility Commissioners". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  26. ^ HM Government (11 December 2018). "SMC relaunch with 12 new commissioners and bigger research budget". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  27. ^ Whittaker, Freddie (11 December 2019). "Social Mobility Commission to relaunch with £2m research budget". Schools Week. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  28. ^ HM Government Cabinet Office (16 July 2018). "HM Government public appointments: Chair of the Social Mobility Commission". Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  29. ^ Whittaker, Freddie (11 July 2019). "Social Mobility Commission chair gets new £350-a-day pay deal". Schools Week. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  30. ^ George, Martin (18 June 2018). "Social Mobility Commission admits making little impact". Tes. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  31. ^ Snowdon, Kathryn (18 June 2019). "4 things we learned from the Social Mobility Commission's education committee hearing". Schools Week. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  32. ^ Payne 2017, p. 170
  33. ^ Maslen 2019, p. 607
  34. ^ Payne 2017, p. 170
  35. ^ Bukodi & Goldthorpe 2018, p. 218
  36. ^ Maslen 2019, p. 606
  37. ^ Maslen 2019, p. 603
  38. ^ Payne 2012, p. 69
  39. ^ HM Government (31 January 2016). "Social mobility index". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  40. ^ HM Government (28 November 2017). "Social mobility index: 2017 data". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  41. ^ House of Commons Library (15 October 2018). "Constituency data: Social Mobility Index by Constituency (SMIC)". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  42. ^ HM Government (4 October 2016). "Social mobility package unveiled by Education Secretary". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  43. ^ HM Government (18 January 2017). "Education Secretary announces 6 new opportunity areas". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  44. ^ HM Government (9 October 2017). "Social mobility and opportunity areas". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  45. ^ "Social Mobility Tsar visits Oldham". ITV News. 30 October 2019. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  46. ^ Blackpool Opportunity Area (31 October 2019). "Elle UK editor Farrah Storr offers work experience for college students". Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  47. ^ "Search". HM Government. Retrieved 23 October 2019.


  1. ^ Duncan Smith had held roles on Cabinet Committees on Social Justice and Social Mobility as, respectively, Chair and Vice-Chair.[9]


Atherton, Graeme (2016). The Success Paradox: Why We Need a Holistic Theory of Social Mobility. Bristol: Policy Press. ISBN 978-1-447-31633-6.

Bamfield, Louise (2012). "Child Poverty and Social Mobility: Taking the Measure of the Coalition's 'New Approach'". Political Quarterly. 83 (4): 830–837. doi:10.1111/j.1467-923x.2012.02418.x.

Bukodi, Erzsébet; Goldthorpe, John H. (2018). Social Mobility and Education in Britain: Research, Politics and Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-46821-3.

Maslen, Joseph (2019). "Cracking the Code: The Social Mobility Commission and Education Policy Discourse". Journal of Education Policy. 34 (5): 599–612. doi:10.1080/02680939.2018.1449891. S2CID 149726651. "Accepted manuscript". Institutional open access repository. Retrieved 21 October 2019.

Payne, Geoff (2012). "A New Social Mobility? The Political Redefinition of a Sociological Problem". Contemporary Social Science. 7 (1): 55–71. doi:10.1080/21582041.2011.652360. S2CID 144041004.

Payne, Geoff (2017). The New Social Mobility: How the Politicians Got It Wrong. Bristol: Policy Press. ISBN 978-1-447-31065-5.