Social mobility in Britain is stuck, here’s what to do about it

26 May 2017 -


There are ways to unlock social mobility in Britain, but they require very bold thinking. We could start by giving all children inspirational work-experience opportunities and by bigging up the new-style apprenticeships

Matthew Rock

In recent BBC drama The Moorside, about the faked disappearance of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, the character Natalie Brown (brilliantly played by Sian Brooke) stares into the distance and reflects on the missed opportunities in her life.

Few details are offered, but that wistful look tells you she could have achieved so much more, if only life had taken a few different turns. Instead, she stayed in her sink estate and, in the dramatic events of 2008, was a lone voice questioning the consensus of the crowd.

Natalie came to mind a lot when I was researching social mobility in Britain in 2017.

Research by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) makes grim reading. On pretty much every available measure, social mobility in the UK has stalled.

Children from poor backgrounds aren’t progressing as they should be at school. The class system persists in many professions, holding back those who lack connections, credentials and confidence. Young people from black and Asian Muslim communities often do well at school, only to fall back in the workplace.

Most shocking of all, perhaps, there are 20 places in the UK where, the SMC says, there is almost no access to sixth-form education, including, astonishingly, parts of Cambridge, Exeter and Hampshire.

“There is a new geography of disadvantage in Britain,” says Alan Milburn, chair of the SMC, “whereby the chances of a child doing well in life depend massively on where they come from, rather than where they aspire to get to.”

Cycle of disappointment

Few areas in public life are the subject of so much study. Again and again it’s the initial steps that appear to be the most problematic.

A young person may show ability and promise at school, only then to struggle as they try to move into a job, career or technical pursuit. Low-income youngsters are one-third more likely to drop out of education at 16 than better-off peers with similar GCSEs.

Those early setbacks often turn into a cycle of disappointment.

Many commentators have read the Brexit vote as a howl of protest from people who want to move on, but find every road blocked. Social commentator Owen Jones wrote recently in The Guardian that “pessimism… was what drove so many here [in Margate] to vote Brexit. It’s a pessimism that is lethal in its toxicity”.

In 2016, a landmark report by CMI and the EY Foundation, An Age of Uncertainty, drew attention to the difficulties young people have in securing work experience, which has long offered a foothold into new opportunities.

Again, the results were concerning. Schools and colleges are no longer obliged to find placements for pupils; many have abandoned work-experience schemes due to financial pressures. As one young attendee observed during a series of CMI/EY roundtables that followed the report’s publication: “My college does have a careers adviser, but she is only in once a week and most people don’t know her.” So the student gets her main advice from her mum and then specific details from her teachers.

She’s not alone. More than half of young people find it difficult to get work experience. A whopping 88% want employers to offer more opportunities. As 18-year-old Louise Coles observed in An Age of Uncertainty: “It is really hard to get good-quality work experience when you don’t have the connections, and even harder if you don’t know the options available to you.”

All this leaves children, and parents, battling to eke out work-experience opportunities: letters to employers, lacklustre responses, follow-up phone calls… Even if they do succeed in securing a position, 58% of young people* say they aren’t given training while on work experience; 49% aren’t told what skills they’d need to get a job in the organisation; and a quarter get no feedback on how they’ve done during their assignment.

These are more than sob stories. Every failed or disappointing encounter with the world of work has a cumulative, negative effect on optimism and life chances.

The more employer contacts – such as careers talks or work experience – that a young person gets in school (between the ages of 14 and 19), the more confidence they have to achieve career goals**.

“There is a direct correlation between employer interactions with young people while they are still in school and their prospects,” says Patrick Dunne, chair of the EY Foundation and of CMI’s Board of Companions.

In Manchester, youth-employment initiative New Economy is campaigning for young people to have four interactions with employers between the ages of 12 and 16. Others propose an ‘employer hour’ every Friday at 10am when an employer in every school can talk about the world of work.

“Where did you do your apprenticeship…?”

Britain’s social hierarchy has been defined by questions such as “Where did you go to school?”. Which educational establishment you attended has long been your ticket to the mainstream.

As well as the innate snobbishness, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy about this focus on academic achievement.

“The people who get told about opportunities are those with top grades,” said one attendee at the Manchester CMI/EY roundtable. But this may be changing.

The advent of degree apprenticeships, pioneered in part by CMI with its Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship, is legitimising the non-university career pathway. Already, more parents are encouraging children down this route, drawn by the idea that their beloved will get a job and a degree.

Many kids too are attracted to getting a degree but not being saddled by debt.

And there are uber-successful entrepreneurs who will speak from personal experience about the benefits of apprenticeships, such as Jamie Oliver, Phones4U founder John Caudwell and TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh.

New role models of the degree apprentice route are emerging all the time; we highlighted several in our Winter 2017 edition of Professional Manager.

Critically, employers are being encouraged to open their eyes to recruits from a broader socio-economic set. Many major companies now do CV-blind recruitment so they can see beyond a candidate’s background and focus instead on their personality, skills and suitability for the job.

This summer the Social Mobility Foundation is launching an ‘employer index’ that will rank companies on their social-mobility credentials.

This kind of transparency and measurability tends to produce long-term changes.

We’re not there yet. Young guest Maryam attended a CMI/EY roundtable and reflected on how her school communicated non-university options: “School told us that 80% of students went to university. They held assemblies about this, but they pushed back on time when giving information about other routes. They provided UCAS workshops but not skills workshops for apprenticeship applications.”

It’s easy to blame schools and teachers. But, equally, can we really expect schools to understand the multitude of options available to the next generation?

“Schools are stretched, and bombarded with information on different programmes,” said one CMI/EY roundtable guest. “Given the time and resources available, the poor head teacher might not choose to prioritise engagement with employers.”

Could the government’s target of three million apprentices by 2020 change perceptions of apprenticeships?

The SMC’s 2016 State of the Nation report pointed out that the proportion of young people completing apprenticeships has been declining since 2010. Also, higher-level apprenticeships often go to those already in work or to young people who have already acquired academic qualifications. There’s work to be done...

The new world of work

The clincher will be the quality of apprenticeships: if the new-style ones are genuinely intensive and valuable, positive social mobility consequences should follow. CMI’s director of strategy and external affairs, Petra Wilton, says the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship “offers a game-changing new route for building the next generation of professional managers. It brings together the very best of higher education, professional development and work-based learning”.

Long term, the big trigger for greater social mobility may come from the changing nature of work itself. Many new industries, companies and workplace behaviours are background- blind; success owes nothing to school or university connections: if you’re smart enough, you get hired.

Take Tom Arnfeld. He left school in Portsmouth with little idea of what to do next. He was interested in software and had taught himself to code. In his last year at school, he’d helped a local web business at weekends.

Instead of doing A-levels, Tom went to Chichester College, but says he didn’t learn anything new. So, after a year, he opted out. After a productive stint with a larger web agency, he headed for London. He was 17, though he didn’t mention that (or the fact that he’d never actually got his GCSE certificates) on his CV.

On a single life-changing day, he had three interviews for junior IT roles. At one, with an ambitious fintech company, everything clicked. Tom thought the team were “super fun”; they loved that he’d already built his own tweet-shortening app.

“They didn’t mind that I didn’t have qualifications. I think I impressed them with my enthusiasm and I showed that I could pick things up quickly.”

One interview later, and Tom was in. Four years later, he was one of DueDil’s senior developers and, said one former colleague, “the best software engineer I ever worked with”.

Entirely self-taught but on a giddy upward curve, Tom Arnfeld’s story should inspire hope that Britain’s social mobility problems may, eventually, heal over. Yes, there will always be obstacles to social progress – interestingly, Tom believes the big technology companies’ formal recruitment processes are “reintroducing bias back into the system” – but class and connections seem to matter less in the new industries, particularly digital.

As people like Tom move into management, maybe their openness and focus only on attitude and ability may be the final piece of the jigsaw.



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