Mill Interview: Meet the government’s new social mobility tsar - a headteacher from Oldham
The new interim chair of the Social Mobility Commission tells us: ‘If somebody can grow up in Oldham and go to Oxford, that's fantastic. But that's only ever going to be very small numbers’
Dear Millers — in today’s edition, we’ve got a fascinating interview with the Oldham headteacher who has just been appointed to lead the government’s influential Social Mobility Commission; his first media interview since he took the role. He told staff writer Jack Dulhanty about how his experiences in Greater Manchester have shaped him and why he doesn’t think social mobility is about sending high-flying students to Oxford and Cambridge. We’ve also got an update on Monday’s story about the region’s crucial housing plan and some other big stories you should know about this evening.
Welcome to all of our new readers — dozens of you joined our email list after Monday’s briefing, and we’ve got another dozen members on the list too. Today’s newsletter is a members’ edition but as usual at this time of the week, our free Millers can read a few bits at the top. If you’re not a member and you’d like to read our interview with the fascinating Alun Francis and get all of our in-depth journalism in your inbox — including political scoops, peerless cultural writing and great data journalism — just join up as a member. We’ve just firmed up the dates for three brilliant members’ events in March, April and May, so you will also get the chance to come to those. Get on board! And thanks to our 1,728 members who already have.
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On Monday, we reported on concerns surrounding Greater Manchester's big growth strategy Places for Everyone, the future of which is in doubt because of the government’s proposed changes to housing targets. Councils like Oldham and Bury are coming under pressure to withdraw from the plan, including from James Daly, the Conservative MP for Bury North. Advocates of Places for Everyone will be reassured to hear that a senior source at Oldham Council insists they are not on the brink of withdrawing (“We're really not — at least not to the very best of my knowledge,”) and a similarly senior source in Bury says the ruling Labour group there has already taken the political pain from activists who are opposed to the plan so they plan to stick it out. “At the moment nothing has changed,” they told us. “It's a ministerial statement, there's a consultation happening. Until the legislation changes, the planning inspectors will carry on.”
The stakes are high, as the reactions to our story attest. "If GM can’t resolve this then the chances of securing more powers and resources from an always sceptical Whitehall are much reduced,” tweeted economist and longtime Miller David Higham, calling it an “existential issue for the Manchester Model.” Referring to the former leader and chief executive of Manchester City Council, he added: “The Leese/Bernstein pitch was always that GM could sort out its internal disputes." Planning expert Paul Smith wrote a Twitter thread about why the story matters — “House prices in Manchester have risen by more than virtually every other UK city over recent years,” he pointed out, adding: “A huge part of the reason for that is the city region simply hasn’t been building enough new homes.”
What would help us to cover this story even better? Having a staffed up Mill bureau in Oldham, of course. And the perfect location is emerging, with reports that “Oldham’s iconic 134-year-old Prudential Building which has been rotting for years could be returned to its ‘former splendour’ under new plans.” What will the stunning building be used for? “The inside and outside would be repaired to transform it into a ‘21st century incubator facility’ for businesses, focusing on the creative, digital, and media sectors,” the story says… If anyone fancies funding our northward expansion, please do get in touch. We promise many more engrossing Oldham-based longreads if you do.
Hundreds of students at the University of Manchester are withholding their rent payments this month. They are seeking to pressure the university into offering a 30% cut on monthly rent — plus a rebate for fees already paid — to help ease the cost of living. One of the strike's organisers says he was moved to action after finding that, after paying rent, he only had £200 to last four months. In 2020, similar action by students, who were dissatisfied with their experience at the university over the pandemic, secured a 30% rebate worth £4m, as we documented in this brilliant piece by Mollie Simpson, then still a student at the university and now a Mill staffer.
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves says Labour would not give local authorities new tax-raising powers if they win the next election. It hasn't gone down well with pro-devolution think tanks, who say "levelling up cannot be achieved" without granting such powers, but Reeves says the tax burden is already too high as it is. Labour would instead increase spending powers with targeted tax increases, mostly achieved by closing tax loopholes.
A dispatcher for the North West Ambulance Service tells the BBC their job has become "crushingly depressing" amidst the crisis in the NHS. "The feeling of saving lives has been taken over by how many can we not kill," they said. "I never thought I'd leave the NHS — but I'd take a job at Aldi. I'd take a job cleaning." NWAS's medical director Dr Chris Grant said the anonymous testimony left him "hugely disheartened" and that the recent pressures on the service had been the worse he had seen in his career.
And finally, some news from Denmark: Noma, the three Michelin-star restaurant hailed as the best in the world, is closing at the end of 2024. René Redzepi, Noma’s founder, says the restaurant’s punishing work hours and extreme culture is to blame. “It’s unsustainable. Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” Why are we telling you this? Last year, we investigated the culture at Manchester’s only Michelin-star restaurant, Mana, whose founder made a big deal of his links to Redzepi, including what staff believed was a fictional phone call with the Danish chef. Noma’s closure will prompt further soul-searching about the culture of elite kitchens and we’d like to be part of that conversation too. As always, if you work in a Manchester restaurant, Jack is all ears (email@example.com).
Mill Interview: the government’s new social mobility tsar is a headteacher from Oldham. We spoke to him about the challenge ahead.
By Jack Dulhanty
What is social mobility? If you told someone a story of a bright young person who grew up on a council estate, worked hard in school, got into Oxford and became a lawyer, they’d probably click their fingers and say: “it’s that.”
Alun Francis OBE thinks there is more to it. Last Friday, the principal of Oldham College was appointed as the interim chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) following in the footsteps of the controversial “Tory teacher” Katharine Birbalsingh, who quit recently. Birbalsingh, labelled “Britain's strictest headteacher”, is an advocate of old-school discipline (her school in London has had great success with that approach) and took interview slots on GB News to rail against wokeism. But in her resignation letter, she said that “notoriety” as a culture warrior undermined the commission’s work.
Francis doesn’t appear to be the culture war type. The 57-year-old has worked in local government for decades, often in deprived communities, and believes England’s pressing social mobility problem won’t be solved just by funnelling talent through the straits of higher education. Instead, we ought to broaden the opportunities available to people at all levels of society. This means offering the same level of support and opportunities to someone with aspirations to be a plumber as we do to those with aspirations to become a doctor.
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