Social Mobility: what’s the hold up?

Mark Smith | 22 Sep 2015 | Comments

Many young students are starting to build on their GCSE and A Level results and taking the next steps towards their future careers. For some of these students this step may be decided by more than just the attainment of exam results. With increasing political commentary around rising inequality and declining social mobility, there is striking evidence to suggest that where you grow up and go to school plays a significant part in what opportunities are open to you later on in your career.

A recent report in the Telegraph cites that “since the recession the proportion of people who see poverty and inequality as among the most important issues facing the UK has risen threefold”. This has pushed conversations around social mobility, particularly within higher education institutions, into the political foreground. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, has taken a lead role in identifying the factors that impact peoples’ access to opportunities. Covering a complex number of causes and effects such as the quality of schools, grades, family wealth, outreach initiatives and bursaries, the Commission looks at a wide variety of barriers that are perceived to cause inequality and impact social mobility, though there are often disagreements between academics on the overall impact.

Despite this, research conducted by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) suggests that “even when we compare just the academic achievements like-for-like, applicants from deprived backgrounds are often still less likely to get into get into high tariff universities”.

So what’s the hold up?

As an early careers recruiter it is this information that caught my attention, as without access to equal opportunities in the education system, talented young people will not be given the right chances to help fill the much needed skills gaps in our sector. Furthermore our ability as employers to hire and build strong, diverse workforces is being hampered by social inequalities and lack of mobility from within the education system itself. What’s surprising here is that the challenges to increased social mobility are well documented, so when looking for the solutions, what’s the hold up?

In my opinion there are a couple of things that would help move things forward and bring around a wider debate that could improve the prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Firstly, there needs to be a sustainable plan put in place that will support the future of part-time university courses and opportunities for mature students. Universities are already warning of a ‘collapse’ in both of these areas since the increase of tuition fees to £9,000. The chair of the Independent Commission on Fees, Will Hutton, has said that since many part-time and mature students “come from less advantaged backgrounds, the fees hike is potentially having a serious and detrimental impact on their social mobility”. This is an important group of students that should not be overlooked and I believe that universities and employers need to invest in this area to make sure access to education is affordable and suitably flexible so individuals from all backgrounds have access.

Secondly, all of the important social information on students backgrounds such as ethnicity, home town, GCSE, A-level grades and the universities they attend is not yet being disclosed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), even though there is increasing pressure from politicians and academics. A critic of this, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has stated “UCAS is harming efforts to improve social mobility by blocking the release [of this data] to academics…university admissions are a key indicator”. It’s known that currently students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being under-represented at top universities, so although this data doesn’t provide any solutions in itself, it could help to start the building of a more level playing field in the university admission system.

A final trend I have noted is discussed directly by Alan Milburn from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. He discusses the Commissions finding that “low-ability children from wealthy families over take high-ability children from poor families during their school years”. Currently the Commission suggests that it would take at least 30 years to halve the attainment gap at GCSE between pupils entitled to free school meals and their better-off classmates.

But what can be done?

Following on from this, Alan has suggested that “action is required at every level”. He believes that it’s not just schools, colleges and universities that need to take the lead here, but also the wider community including employers who play a vital part.

In the early careers team at Atkins we have a particular focus on our social responsibilities with diversity and social mobility at the forefront of our minds. Stacy Fletcher, our diversity lead, is currently looking at how we can have a more direct impact.

Stacy’s work currently covers a variety of activities at Atkins such as the building of stronger links between recruitment and HR as well as the STEM community at Atkins, which are local hubs set up across the UK that encourage young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. She also works closely with universities, looking beyond the traditional Russell Group to assess the makeup of their student populations, allowing us to better understand the entry routes into our graduate opportunities and improve access to our careers for individuals from a wider range of backgrounds.

As a team we also recognise the importance of working with schools across the whole of the UK, ensuring we include inner-city schools and those from less advantaged areas, providing them with careers advice, mentors and support through to offering a range of apprenticeships and working with the wider community to help fund out-reach projects.

Overall it’s clear that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to increase social mobility in the UK. With the education system being the entry point which guides young people’s choices and prospects, it needs to take responsibility for giving greater access to opportunities across diverse backgrounds. However as employers we can also take a lead role, supporting schools, colleges and universities to enable greater social mobility.