The subject of social mobility in the UK is too often treated as a general concept. It is now taken for granted and is in danger of becoming a glib phrase - if it hasn’t already. There is much agonising and philosophising about its existence, yet we see very little action. It is easy to get lost in the midst of clever conceptual arguments, and politicians seem to use the word daily to try and score political points.
Social immobility is not a new problem, but it is getting worse, failure to tackle it is becoming an increasing issue in our society. How do we give young people free and open opportunity to compete with those who benefit from the ‘right’ connections and the ‘right’ introductions?
Two-thirds of children who are in poverty live in a house where at least one parent is in work. The quality of our schools still varies hugely: 29 per cent of schools serving deprived areas in the North East are rated as good/outstanding compared to 77 per cent in London. Young people from the 20 per cent most advantaged areas of the UK are nearly seven times more likely to go to the most selective universities as from the 40 per cent most disadvantaged.
There are practical measures and remedies which can be taken by business and the educational establishment to reduce social immobility – a problem which is being tackled on a daily basis by charitable bodies concerned with the next generation’s wellbeing.
So what can big business do? Business should look beyond the obvious candidates, under the surface there are very bright people who need to be uncovered and encouraged. They need to improve their search for talent among those from less privileged backgrounds. For a start they could provide a greater provision of work experience. Surely every big business can afford to provide more apprenticeships? They need to widen their scope of their intake.
Of paramount importance is ensuring all internships are paid, and making sure that the pool of talent for internships is broadened and not limited to the friends and family of those already in the boardroom. This means accepting interns from a broader range of schools and universities, and not just always opting for those from private education and the Russell Group or Oxbridge. Businesses must place the merit of educational achievement in the context of the school or university they were achieved in.
We know from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s last state of the nation report that many big businesses are failing to grasp the issue. You can’t overstate how frustrating that is when it is estimated that breaking the link between background and achievement could add as much as four per cent to GDP as well as improving life chances.
Schools also need to take responsibility themselves and receive outreach from businesses positively. Too often the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), which I chair, encounters teachers who are negative about the free-of-charge, potentially life-changing opportunities for the pupils they teach. This negativity is shameful and inexcusable. The impact of that negativity for their pupils is, quite simply, that their potential and lifetime opportunities are limited by it.
Charities also have an important role to play, particularly when it comes to holding big business and the educational establishment to account. The SMF, aims to tackle some of these problems by helping high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds enter top universities and to fairly compete for entry into the professions and big business. We are playing our part by providing the programmes aimed at helping young people realise their educational and career aspirations. The majority of the young people we take on are eligible for Free School Meals, which means they come from families with a household income of less than £16,190. They’ve done well at school, and are expected to do well at A-Level, but for the jobs they’re interested in – such as in politics, journalism, medicine and banking – this will not be enough to get them there.
Personal circumstances come into play and can prevent them from realising their true potential.
Take a recent example of a very bright young lad from Hackney who was on our City Talent Initiative scheme. The programme provided him with a mentor from JP Morgan as well as a placement with the city firm every three years subject to performance. You’d struggle to find a more perspicacious and hard working individual. But sadly, all of this could have been for nothing as he was unable to pay for his travel to work. We of course made sure his expenses were covered, but it is a stark example of how someone’s personal circumstances can limit the opportunities their intelligence and ability would otherwise allow them to pursue.
Most alarmingly, sometimes social mobility can even be hindered by old prejudices, which most of us would have thought had been consigned to history. Take for example the recent case we were faced with of a young female student at a state school on free meals, who was predicted two As and a B at A-level and who wanted to pursue a career in medicine. She went to see her careers master and told him she had always wanted to be doctor. His response was “no dear, the best you can expect is to be a nurse”.
When those from disadvantaged backgrounds already face so many obstacles, they don’t need the added encumbrance of stuffy and archaic attitudes to set them back further. Cases such as these underline the fact that there is still a lot more work to be done. When so much is at stake for the future of the next generation and the country’s economic wellbeing, it is high time government, big business and the education system did more to help to help under privileged and the unrecognised to fulfil their potential.
This is not just altruism, it’s also sound economics.
Sir Victor Blank is chair of the Social Mobility Foundation