‘Just move on up, move on up, but move on up’ - Social mobility and social gravity: what does this mean in 2018?

05 April 2018

Tim Pope, Associate Director

Earlier this decade it was common to hear about why a global race for international success meant that as a nation we needed to work harder, longer and smarter to ‘maintain our place in the world’. Today stories increasingly seem to be about the need to work harder and smarter to ‘counter the rise of the machines stealing our “jobs”. Both narratives propose different problems but the same medicine and it feels exhausting. And if it feels increasingly hard to keep up with a changing world, it is still harder to catch up.


Back in 2012, a few months before the London Olympics, the recently formed All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social mobility published its interim report, ‘Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility’. The report showed that Britain’s social mobility was low by international standards and not improving. The APPG called for action to help people break out from poverty of aspirations or troubled backgrounds and move on up. They called for action to enable everyone to reach their potential, while nurturing outstanding talent and helping stars to shine. The 2012 Olympics, which aimed to inspire a generation, drew out some of the great back stories of the athletes involved. The story of Rwandan mountain biker Adrien Niyonshuti seemed to me to be an exemplar for the APPG report’s aspirations. It is a personal, community and national story of hope arising from his passion, access to support and commitment to succeed as he rose from cycling out of necessity to representing his country at the finals and carrying their flag.

Five years on from the Olympics, the most recent Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation report found that Britain was still a deeply divided nation in many aspects, including place. Trends are emerging in opportunities for social mobility:

• Gaps between London and the rest of the country;

• Our cities punching below their weight;

• Coldspots in remote rural areas, coastal areas and former industrial areas;

• Not just deprived areas with low social mobility, and vice versa and

• The positive influence of local policies adopted by local authorities and employers on outcomes for disadvantaged residents.

This last point is one that chimes with me and the work we do at PPL. It shows that it is possible to change the narrative, to have a local impact, to build collaborative and co-ordinated systems across organisations and most importantly to change outcomes.

As the report notes, however, it also shows how initiatives and inspiring projects are not enough if they do not inspire wider system change and move in from the margins of mainstream practice. To do this requires action across local systems, supported and enabled by national policy but it also challenges each of us to think about our own aspirations for winning the race alone or together.

As the APPG noted back in 2012, full social mobility means some people “moving down” at least in relative terms. Niyonshuti finished second to last in the mountain bike finals in London and did not finish the race in Rio. Some might see that as relative decline but for me he’s an inspiration. Following his race in London, he set up a cycling academy in Rwanda to offer the chance for other young people to experience the power of cycling, to instil hope and to pass on its positive values to future generations.

We might be in a global race, but if winning means an ever more divided society, isn’t it time to start exploring how by moving closer together we all move up a lot?

This year we are celebrating PPL10 – our tenth anniversary during which we are raising funds for ten charities including Excellent Development. They are pioneers of sand dams and focus on giving people the opportunity to transform their own lives. You can read more about them and donate here.