Social workers can play a bigger role in boosting the life chances of children and families they work with, the chair of the Social Mobility Commission has said.
Alan Milburn, a former Labour cabinet minister, said the profession was one of the biggest “underleveraged assets” in efforts to promote social mobility and tackle social injustices faced by children in care and those from low-income families.
As chair of the commission, Milburn advises government on ways to boost social mobility.
Speaking at an event organised by social work training scheme Frontline, Milburn said it was a “moral outrage” that children on free school meals were about half as likely to get five good GCSEs than their better off counterparts, and children in care were likely to fare even worse.
He said there were “no simple answers to the social mobility question” but said social workers had a part to play, particularly in supporting families to get “the basics of parenting” right.
He said: “This is a very uncomfortable question for many people to have, but I’m afraid there are some sort of bald facts of the matter. The truth is a child from a poor family is far less likely to be read to regularly than a child from a better off family. Two in five lower income parents read to their children regularly, four in five better off parents do the same. The consequences are felt throughout a child’s life.
“We have to find a way, and there aren’t many obvious ways, of trying to nudge and encourage and support parents to do the basics of parenting. To foster their kids’ abilities, to read to them, to provide some basic opportunities.”
He added: “It’s an outrage that over the course of the last five years 600,000 under five-year-olds have started school without the right level of development to do so, despite the expansion of early years and childcare services.
“What is the right level of development? It’s being able to toilet yourself. It’s being able to put your coat on. It’s being able to speak in sentences. It’s being able to hold a book.
“These are really basic things. And for some parents that is deeply challenging. But we’ve got to be challenging too. And we’ve got to say that there are some things that are acceptable and some things that are not.”
Milburn said aiding social mobility was critical to mending the divisions being felt in the UK, where “whole tracts of our country feel left behind”.
He said the “British promise” that each successive generation of children would do better than the last was no longer being met, with home ownership in sharp decline among younger age groups.
Asked why he felt social work had been “missing” from the wider debate on social mobility, Milburn said: “It’s pretty difficult. Social work is having to deal with both greater quantity and greater complexity of social problems.
“Unsurprisingly therefore people are getting on and doing their job, and sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees.”
He added: “I think it’s always important in these situations to go back to basics and think what are we doing this for? Of course you’re doing it to help and support people who have incredible disadvantage.
“But in the end, presumably, part of the motivation is that you not only want to help individuals but you also want to create a better and fairer society. So I think it’s a really a case of the profession, in pretty difficult circumstances, to get its head up and focus on its core purpose.”