Big nudge, no cash
Not so much a policy, as a giant nudge. That, perhaps, sums up the ambition of the government's social mobility strategy [2.82MB PDF] published today.
Ministers' power to make a difference is diminishing: they are no longer in the business of trying to improve matters with imposed targets or new regulation, pulling levers in Whitehall. Now it is all about encouraging and urging people to change the way they behave. Oh, and by the way, there is no money.
The principles laid out in the document ("we take a long-term view...we will take a progressive approach...we will adopt a ruthlessly evidence-based approach") also include the admission that "Government does not have all the answers." Well no, they don't. And the next paragraph explains why they might currently have rather fewer answers than before.
"We cannot get away from the intense fiscal pressures we face as a country. Failing to reduce the deficit would saddle future generations with enduring public debt and slower growth, threatening social mobility. That creates challenges. We must do more with less. Above all, we must do more to promote a fairer society."
The strategy neatly sets out the challenge. It is much harder for poorer children to make it in Britain than other comparable countries.
Indeed, the report says British women are right at the "bottom of the range" in terms of social mobility.
There is recognition of the need for a real focus on what the report calls the "Foundation Years" - from conception to primary school. The strategy accepts that poorer children turning up for their first day of state education have already fallen behind their peers.
But when one looks at the proposals for those early years, it is clear this is not a government that wants to force change itself, but rather wants to encourage others. (The word "encourage" incidentally appears more than 20 times in the strategy document.)
So in responding to the recommendations from Graham Allen MP that more be done to help mothers from poorer backgrounds the government says:
"We agree that a broad-based alliance of interested groups, charities, employers and foundations would be best placed to take this forward..."
A ministerial determination to encourage localism means that, while the principle of early intervention is supported by a grant of more than £2bn a year to authorities in England, the money is not ring-fenced.
Local authorities facing cuts to their overall budgets can use the cash "to respond to local needs". The result is that in some areas, Sure Start centres are closing - even though today's report says the government is "supporting...the national network".
The much-vaunted scheme to get organisations to open up internships and work experience to those whose parents are not in a position to "have a word with someone else at the golf club or the tennis club" is all about "urging employers" to do the right thing, not passing legislation or imposing regulation.
Existing government commitments to recruit 4,200 new health visitors in England, expand the apprenticeships programme, introduce the pupil premium, offer the opportunity for longer paternity leave are listed by the government as "policy highlights" of the strategy.
But critics argue that such measures do not amount to the kind of long-term, progressive investment that will be needed to make a real difference. And in the context of cuts and the introduction of higher tuition fees in English universities, opponents of the coalition suggest the strategy is dead in the water.
In the end, it is a strategy - not a policy document or a set of spending commitments. With its indicators and rhetoric, it is designed to shape the thinking of Whitehall departments, local government and wider society. It is a nudge. But is a powerful nudge enough?