The Carlisle Social Mobility Story

In the UK there is a Social Mobility Commission. Their task is to ensure people are able to progress and improve their lot in life. In order to see how well efforts are going to improve social mobility they have developed a Social Mobility Index.

The Social Mobility Index compares the chances that a child from a disadvantaged background will do well at school and get a good job across each of the 324 local authority district areas of England.

It examines a range of measures of the educational outcomes achieved by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and the local job and housing markets to shed light on which are the best and worst places in England in terms of the opportunities young people from poorer backgrounds have to succeed.

The last use of the index was in 2017. 324 Local Authorities in England were measured. This showed 49% of North West Local Authorities were in the lowest half of rankings.

The Cumbria wards scored in the following ways:

    • South Lakeland 104th
    • Copeland 170th
    • Barrow 280th
    • Carlisle  321st out of 324.

These are shocking and unacceptable statistics. Why did Carlisle do so badly?

A range of 16 indicators are used to calculate the social mobility scores for each area. And Carlisle’s rankings on this start to highlight some of the issues.

  • Early years attainment in Carlisle is amongst the worst 30-40% in England
  • School attainment was in the worst 10-20%
  • Youth outcomes were in the worst 0-10% and 8th worst in England overall.
  • Adult outcomes were in the worst 20-30%

This highlights that something goes amiss for school leavers. There are uncharacteristically high levels of young people counted as NEET, or not meeting their predicted potential after leaving school. This was, however, in the era before the school leaving age was raised to 18, which will have since improved this area just by keeping young people in school for longer.


As a result of this the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission at that point, Sir Alan Milburn, warned of a “spiral of division”, with London providing greater opportunities for the disadvantaged than coastal, rural and former industrial areas which are being “left behind economically and hollowed out socially”. He stated that; “The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one. There is a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today”.


The index has not been repeated since 2017 (we wonder why?). The Social Mobility Commission has been active however. In 2019 they carried out a poll into public opinion into social mobility. The survey was limited, however, as it was only completed by 5000 people.


The poll returned the following results:

  • Just 31% of people living in the north-east think there are good opportunities to make progress in their own region. Only 48% of those in the north-west felt this optimism. This compares with 74% in the south-east and 78% of Londoners.
  • Almost half of people (44%) said that where you end up in society is largely determined by your background and just over a third (35%) feel that everyone has a chance to get on
  • The majority of people (77%) think there is a large gap between the social classes in Britain today
  • Only a third (30%) of 18 to 24 year olds think that everyone in Britain today has a fair chance compared to almost (48%) of those aged 65 and over
  • 50% of people think central government should be doing more to improve social mobility and to ensure opportunity for all – 38% felt local government should do more and 37% felt schools should do more.

Understanding why this is the case is important. We need to know how the geography, socioeconomic status, education, welfare and social care provision, work landscape, demographics and economy in the region interact to create this particularly stark scenario.

The task of improving social mobility has long been the duty of schools, colleges and educators. This is not the whole picture however, education is only one form of social capital. Other forms of capital also support social mobility such as money, network, skills, culture and so on. So what else can be done?

What the commission has done since is to publish a toolkit for employers to improve the social mobility in their organisations. Whilst useful guidance, this also does not address the systemic issues that limit social mobility.

Many organisations are also signing up to a new social mobility pledge – again a move in the right direction, but only if actions accompany the pledges made.

Whilst positive, for me, these measures all fall far short of what is required. Whilst we do need to support people to do well in schools and organisations, we, as a society, need to address all the inequities that stifle social mobility. That would include reducing income inequality, improving welfare provision, creating more equitable access to a wide range of resources. An attitudinal change is also required so everyone is treated with equal respect rather than as entirely responsible for their own issues.

This means a large scale structural change in society and attitudinal change. Improvement is necessary, as demonstrated by the higher levels of social mobility in different areas of Cumbria and especially the South of England.

Step one: raise awareness of this issue in local government, councils, organisations.

Step two: dig into the data, work out what drives the issue

Step three: petition for the changes that need to happen, linked to other local initiatives and provision.



What would you do?


The social mobility commission:

The toolkit:

The pledge:


Screenshot 2018-09-06 07.57.18


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