Aspiration and social mobility were at the heart of Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” pitch in 1997. They are similarly echoed in Keir Starmer’s vision for Britain: he has repeatedly framed his desire to be prime minister with his own working-class roots and his ambition to “shatter the class ceiling” so that all children can achieve their full potential. Breaking down barriers to opportunity is one of the five missions that Starmer says will drive a Labour government.

All well and good, but there are two serious and related question marks hanging over this aspect of Labour’s agenda. The first is that when it comes to social mobility, a Labour government will find itself running up a down-escalator: many indicators been moving in the wrong direction in the last fourteen years. Child poverty rates have increased since 2010: almost one in three children now lives in relative child poverty. This is a product not just of the rising cost of living but of Conservative chancellors slashing tax credits and benefits while cutting taxes for disproportionately more affluent households. The poorest tenth of families with children have lost an average of £4,000 a year as a result of changes to the tax and benefit system since 2010. Growing up in poverty blights children’s lives well into adulthood: it is associated with poorer employment and health outcomes for the rest of their lives. The educational attainment gap between children from more and less affluent backgrounds has been growing since before the pandemic and the number of children leaving compulsory education without five GCSEs has risen to one in five. Moreover, we are living in a society where parental wealth is becoming more important than ever as a financial cushion against extortionate housing costs: whether or not it’s possible to borrow from parents for a rental deposit or to get on the housing ladder has a huge impact on someone’s economic opportunities in adulthood, and those of their own children in turn.

So Labour cannot break the thickening “class ceiling” without serious policies to address child poverty and close the gap in education. While government has never succeeded in eliminating the influence of class on children’s life chances, there is plenty of evidence about what works in helping to reduce its impact.

The issue is how constrained a Labour government will be, given the tight fiscal constraints it has pledged to adopt, effectively mirroring Conservative rules on borrowing. Any plan to improve social mobility would require targeting more cash at low-income parents through the tax benefit system and improving the mental health and children’s services that support children with higher levels of need: children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more than three times more likely to be missing more than half of school than other children. It needs reinvestment in the Sure Start early years programme that was introduced by the Labour government as an intervention targeted at poorer areas, and which new research shows significantly improved GCSE performance for children raised near a Sure Start centre. And it requires huge effort in getting the best teachers and head teachers into schools in the poorest areas.

Free breakfast clubs are a cost-effective way of helping to improve school results

Labour’s policy offer in this area has some good elements – free breakfast clubs are a cost-effective way of helping to improve school results of children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but set against the broad ambition of smashing the class ceiling, it is worryingly thin on the ground. The hope has to be that if Labour wins the next election, spending on children will be at the top of the priority list for any extra resources it finds; otherwise its ambitions will remain only that.

Maternity care crisis

Another pressing challenge will be improving maternity services. Shockingly, maternity units have long been the least safe part of the NHS, and standards are getting worse: analysis of last year’s Care Quality Commission inspections shows it found a staggering two-thirds were not safe enough up from 55 per cent the previous year. A new parliamentary inquiry into birth trauma reported its findings last month, after considering the testimony of over 1300 parents. It recommended the government develop a national strategy to improve maternity care, led by a maternity commissioner who would report directly to the prime minister.

A lack of resources and a midwifery shortage are only partly the answer: institutional misogyny is also to blame. It is no coincidence that the bit of the NHS that has the poorest safety record concerns female healthcare – inquiry after inquiry has identified a failure to listen to women and their concerns as a root cause of unsafe maternity services. Like all areas of women’s medicine, maternity care suffers from a lack of research about best practice in complex cases with multiple risk factors. And cultural factors are at play too; independent reports into three different maternity scandals in Morecambe Bay, Shrewsbury and Telford and East Kent all found an overemphasis on avoiding medical interventions like Caesarian sections had played a role in unsafe care.

The impact is devastating: hundreds of babies a year are avoidably dying or suffering serious injuries during birth as a result of failures in health care; and maternal mortality rates in the UK are at their highest for twenty years. For too many women and their children, giving birth in the UK is more traumatic and dangerous than it should be.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist

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Columns, Home Front, June / July 2024, Opinions

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