Mario Creatura: The candidate we need to chair the Social Mobility Commission

14 Jul

Today, the final interviews are taking place to appoint a new Chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission. A reported 15 hopefuls will be whittled down to the ultimate victor.

It is a contest so vital to our future success as a nation that I wonder if the selection panel fully appreciates just how much we need them to appoint the right person. 

We have known for many years now that where you grow up, what your parents did for a living and where you went to school are huge predictors of life outcomes in the UK: 

  • Employees in elite occupations who are from working-class backgrounds can earn on average £6,400 less a year than their peers from wealthier homes 
  • Only five per cent of students eligible for Free School Meals go on to study at the most selective universities 
  • Sixty-eight per cent of senior judges, 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries; 57 per cent of the House of Lords and 44 per cent of newspaper columnists were privately educated – compared to 7 per cent of the UK population who attended a private school 
  • In Kensington and Chelsea, half of disadvantaged teenagers make it to university, but the figure for the same group in Barnsley, Hastings and Eastbourne is just 10 per cent.

It’s a cause that’s been championed by governments of all colours for decades, yet the social mobility stagnation continues – with the impact of the pandemic on our education system revealing it now more acutely than ever. 

Between March 2020 and April 2021, children in England lost an unprecedented 110 days of learning in school. When the academic year consists of 190 classroom days, this means young people missed out on 58 per cent of the time they would normally spend in class. While understandable from the point of view of limiting the spread of Covid, this is precious, life-defining time that’s been lost forever.

In early July, the National Audit Office found that the balance of schools funding has shifted from more deprived schools to less deprived schools. Average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2 per cent between 2017-18 and 2020-21, while increasing by 2.9 per cent in the least deprived fifth. While likely the result of a technical bureaucratic error, the NAO rightly recommends that the Department for Education reviews whether its national funding formula is meeting its objective of allocating school funding fairly. 

Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, Robert Halfon, who writes on this sitre today, has repeatedly called for a long-term plan for education – but this would be missing a trick if it didn’t seek a degree of prioritisation for those pupils eligible for free schools meals, and for those in social mobility cold spots. 

Research carried out last September by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and University College London identified such ‘cold spots’ across the country. They often have fewer professional and managerial occupations, fewer outstanding schools, higher levels of deprivation and moderate population density. Chiltern in the South East is the community experiencing the least social mobility, followed by Bradford – three quarters of the least socially mobile areas in England are in the North: Hyndburn, Gateshead, Blackpool, Oldham, Bolton, Stockton-on-Tees and Kirklees.  

Differences shouldn’t be as geographically pronounced as this. As we look to rebuild post-Covid, the Government’s admirable mission to Build Back Better, combined with the inequality that the pandemic has exacerbated, must be taken as the catalyst we all need to tackle British social mobility torpor once and for all. 

The talented Neil O’Brien knows this. In 2012, he served as Alan Milburn’s deputy at the Social Mobility Commission. In his new role as the Government’s Levelling Up Adviser, he needs a fresh lieutenant in the Commission to help him conquer the challenge from the top down and the bottom up: someone who can work with him to galvanise the landmark Levelling Up White Paper due later this year. 

This isn’t just a romantic meritocratic quest: there is a practical political and acutely moral driver to advancing the social mobility agenda. 

Frank Lutz’s research for the Centre for Policy Studies last week noted that just one in four people (27 per cent) thinks the UK is “invested in them”. Only 42 per cent think that they themselves are invested in the UK. Lutz said: “There is a segment of this population who thinks that they have given something to this country and this country’s not given them anything back… Those are people susceptible to populism, wokeism and extremism”. 

If we cannot instil a sense of common civic investment in our country, political unpredictability will likely become the rule rather than the exception. Trust in authority figures and established societal structures will erode. Why bother going to school and working hard if there’s ultimately no hope of escaping historic poverty and bettering oneself?

A broader respect for diversity, tolerance and our shared cultures could fray to oblivion. Having a stake in the game is vitally important for our long-term stability and prosperity as a nation: one of the keys to strengthening that is by turbo-charging social mobility. 

Whoever is successfully appointed Chair of the Social Mobility Commission needs grit, determination and a true grassroots understanding of what our struggling kids need to get on in life. Opportunity is at the heart of levelling up. It, and creating a truly socially mobile society, should be something that they and all good Conservatives full-throatedly support if the goal is to permanently build back better post-Covid. 

Mario Creatura: What we can all do to help raise standards online

10 Jan

Mario Creatura works in communications and campaigns. He is a councillor in Croydon, a former Special Advisor in 10 Downing Street and was a Parliamentary candidate in the 2019 General Election.

In late October last year, social media was abuzz with the news that nostalgia-brand Woolworths was reopening in 2021. Announced by Twitter account @UKWoolworths, the story was quickly picked up by The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Metro and The Daily Star to name a few.

It took one call to Woolies owners the Very Group to debunk the jape, but it was too late: the tweet had already reportedly spawned over 6,000 stories.

It turned out that a 17-year old student from York had set the ball rolling as a part of a British brand-loyalty marketing experiment, yet its falsity should have been obvious. The original account was unverified. It initially had a paltry 900 followers. It was littered with spelling mistakes (including, hilariously, ‘Woolsworths’).

Two initial thoughts jump out from this story: the first is that someone needs to hire this kid at the earliest possible opportunity; he is evidently a digital PR prodigy.

The second is a deep concern that the press, our content curators, can be fooled with such ease. The implicit weight given to ‘trusted’ news sources can lead to potentially millions of members of the public being misled with devastating consequences.

It’s a well-worn warning on the ease with which fake news can become mainstream ‘fact.’ While there are many relatively harmless incidents like the Woolworths wheeze, it can spiral into something all the more nefarious.

At 11.31pm last Saturday evening Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Tooting, took to social media to announce that she’d heard rumours that vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi had managed to get him and his family to skip the vaccine queue:

‘I have heard rumours that @nadhimzahawi got him and his family vaccinated in Wandsworth. Nadhim, can you please tell us if it’s true? I really hope it’s not, unless you meet the necessary criteria. There are millions of vulnerable people waiting patiently in the queue.’

She quickly followed up her allegation with a request that her more than 182,000 followers ‘avoid throwing unnecessary attacks at the Minister’ saying that she ‘didn’t know’ if the accusation was true.

But by this point it was too late. Thousands of furious messages were sent to the Minister, helped along by Allin-Khan’s parliamentary colleagues Barbara Keeley, Karl Turner, and Jo Platt retweeting her claim.

At 12.23am she deleted the original messages, apologising for unintentionally instigating a ‘pile on’, but Pandora’s box was already blown wide open.

Just 50 minutes later, Allin-Khan tweeted a retraction, posting: ‘I have deleted my earlier tweets which were inappropriate and wrong. I regret sharing unsubstantiated claims about the Minister and I apologise to him and his family.’

Zahawi graciously accepted the apology, but the damage had been done. While the claim has impacted his professional reputation, more vital is the doubt that Allin-Khan’s tweet, and its consequences, have sown about the Government’s vaccine rollout strategy. At a time when the public is already worried, the drama will, in a minor way, have added nothing to the need for calm, rational national messaging.

Absolute blame is hard to pin down: in the seconds it takes to dash out a tweet, Allin-Khan can be forgiven for not considering the full ramifications of her posts. Yet we should be unapologetic in demanding more care from those in positions of authority. In the frenetic world we live in, many of us simply don’t have time to independently assess the veracity of claims made online – we often trust that those making the claims and presenting the stories do this legwork on our behalf.

That’s where the system falls down. It operates on trust, rather than guarantee or an accepted standard of training. Nobody teaches MPs how to act responsibly on social media, nobody formally demands the same is true of journalists – arguably, in the rush to get the scoop, the opposite is encouraged.

That’s where groups like the UK Safer Internet Centre come in. Championing the creation of a healthier online environment, particularly concerning children’s safety, they are our lead organisation promoting responsible online behaviours.

A key moment in their year is Safer Internet Day which, for 2021, falls next month on 9th February. Recognised by more than 170 countries around the world, it seeks to educate children, young people, parents and professionals about online safety.

In 2019 the Centre asked young people to explore how they ask for, give and receive consent online. In 2020, it looked at how the internet can help us to discover and explore identity. This year, it will be exploring reliability online – and it couldn’t be more topical.

It is vital that we have a meaningful national conversation on how we can individually assess what to trust online. The UKSIC focuses its efforts on encouraging young people to question, challenge and change the online world for the better, but our children cannot do it on their own.

This is something that their parents, journalists, politicians, celebrities and more of us need to actively consider. How do the posts we engage with influence, persuade or manipulate us? Do they have an impact on the decisions, opinions and what we all share online? How can I tell if what I’m reading is true, a version or truth, or a bald-faced lie? If I’m an influencer, what’s my role in all this?

Those in positions of authority have a duty to do their best to be reliable sources of information – which largely comes down to their own digital literacy, and understanding the importance of taking the time to critically evaluate sources before using them.

A joke about Woolworths is relatively harmless, yet the same basic principle of those in positions of influence not checking before they tweet is clear to see. Whilst we should absolutely forgive influencers for making the odd unintentional mistake, the ramifications of those errors can be felt in aggregate across our society.

One incident like Allin-Khan’s might not do much harm in and of itself, but hers was not the first and it will be far from the last. The constant drip drip of fake news, false allegations and doubt-stoking has a terrible impact on trust in expertise and consequently in our civic institutions. We saw last week how that can ultimately play out, with the storming of the Capitol Building fuelled by, among other things, Trump’s social media manipulations.

The saying goes that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. While it’s essential that we educate young people about the reliability of information on the internet, it’s the adult influencers who urgently need to consider their greater responsibility to consciously share reasonable content.

Creatura Mario: A pandemic pregnancy – and the stess, anxiety, and guilt of being barred from my wife’s side at hospital.

20 Dec

Mario Creatura works in communications and campaigns. He is a councillor in Croydon, a former Special Advisor in 10 Downing Street and was a Parliamentary candidate in the 2019 General Election.

It was a cold, dark night in December last year, two weeks into the General Election campaign. I had just got in from an afternoon of campaigning, wolfed down some dinner and was in the process of running out the door for the next session when my wife, Amy, pulled me to one side.

She was pregnant with our first child. It may be twee, but it was an incredibly happy, instantaneously life-changing moment. And, of course, it suddenly put everything into perspective: I was standing for Parliament but, a split second later, my priorities had shifted to thinking less about knocking on doors in the drizzle and towards the tiny, poppy seed-sized kid inside Amy.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the first scan revealed we were having not one baby, but two: a one in 250 chance. We were elated at the news we were having twins, and couldn’t believe our luck.

I accompanied my wife to every scan, every trip to the hospital – that is, until the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, the guidance changed. I was banished from my wife’s side and relegated to the car park, anxiously waiting for updates that all was well.

The rules were there for a very good reason. We needed to protect the NHS, and keep the risk to the incredible key workers in the hospital as low as possible. We understood the justification on an intellectual level, but that didn’t make it any easier emotionally. We are in the same household; she’ll have whatever I had. Why the separation?

Being pregnant at all comes with many potential hazards, but having a multiple pregnancy is officially classified as ‘higher risk’. There’s any number of additional complications that can occur at any point, simply because you have two or more children growing inside you. Reading the self-help books and online guides were informative but did little to reduce our stress levels

There were many times when I should have been by my wife’s side, when things weren’t going as smoothly as we’d hoped, but I was prevented from doing so. The guilt was palpable, and the impact real. It was made worse knowing that friends and acquaintances were going through the same thing. I subsequently learnt that many NHS Trusts were routinely preventing a partner or family member from accompanying pregnant women for scans and, in some cases, all stages of labour.

That’s why, when the tenacious Alicia Kearns launched her campaign in September, I was an immediate and enthusiastic supporter. It turns out that Government Covid guidance permitted partners to attend both scans and the entirety of labour, yet many trusts hadn’t cascaded this down adequately to maternity teams.

At that time, the guidance from NHS England was for expectant mothers to work out access with their midwife, who had total discretion on partner attendance. That led to national disparities, with large unintended consequences.

From the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary on down, the Government backed the campaign – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter.

Yet three months on, a poll published this week for the incredible Twins Trust found that four out of ten women carrying twins or triplets were still being forced to go through scans alone. And whilst 40 per cent of families said they had one or both twins taken to specialist units after birth, partner access to the children varied from hospital to hospital.

I was able to attend the birth and, immediately after, I spent a few precious hours with my expanded family before being asked politely to leave. One of my boys needed urgent neonatal care, the other needed treatment for ten days after birth. Every day I delivered nappies, snacks and a change of clothes, but each time I had to hand them to a nurse – consigned to video calling my wife on the phone.

Whilst the hospital staff were truly phenomenal, it didn’t change the fact that, in June of this year, I was prevented from seeing my newborn children and wife when they needed me the most.

hankfully, that research, and yet more campaigning from MPs, led to NHS England this week issuing new guidance telling maternity teams them that expectant mothers will have a right to “access to support from a person of her choosing at all stages of her maternity journey”. These people will get a rapid Covid test on arrival, and so there’s no reason why partners shouldn’t be with pregnant women every step of the way. Why on earth did it take three months to communicate something so straightforward?

Back in June when the contractions started, I was continuing my increasingly dependent relationship with the hospital car park. Being separated from my wife as she started labour was for me emotionally (if not physically) agonising. Amy was incredibly brave, and for all intents and purposes had to go through 90 per cent of the labour on her own, frantically snatching the odd minute here and there to Whatsapp or call me.

When the moment came, thankfully, I was near and allowed to rush to her side. The birth was complicated, but the team at East Surrey Hospital could not have supported us better. The professionalism and the care we experienced was world-class, and while the entire experience was impacted by the pandemic it was nevertheless a feeling of total, unadulterated joy when little Milo and Rocco entered the world at 5.04am and 5.18am respectively.

We were lucky: many others have had significantly more traumatic experiences exacerbated by partners not being present. Seventy-none per cent of those quoted in the Twins Trust survey said the pandemic had taken a toll on their mental health. with 47 per cent saying they were allowed to bring a partner to some but not all ultrasounds. And with approximately 19 per cent of expectant mothers saying they received worrying news at a scan, it should be easy to see why this new direction from NHS England is so vitally important.

There is a broader lesson that I hope will be taken from this situation. The pandemic is sadly far from over, and it will take some time for the hope-giving vaccine to be rolled out sufficiently. Roughly 1,800 babies are born in the UK every month. These 1,800 women and their partners deserve to know what they can and can’t do as early and as clearly as possible. The virus has complicated what is an already tricky, stressful process. I hope NHS England and their subsidiary hospitals will learn from this experience to better communicate to their expectant mothers.

A pandemic pregnancy is tough enough; let’s try to ease some of the added anxiety as parents-to-be prepare to bring their little ones into the world.