Social Mobility: Are we really working hard enough to address inequality?

Social Mobility: Are we really working hard enough to address inequality?

Since joining Teach First as a recruiter back in 2008, I’ve seen social mobility featuring consistently at the top of agendas across the world of student recruitment. Back then I’d just left the classroom after spending two years teaching Geography at Loxford School of Science and Technology in Ilford, Essex, throughout which the effects of educational disadvantage in the U.K. had been something I’d seen, and tackled every single day. The EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupil. The pupil whose family were seeking asylum in the UK. The super bright yet incredibly disruptive pupil who had the potential to go on to do so many great things if only they got out of their own way. The pupils who attended reading club every morning before school just so that they could start the day with breakfast inside them.

Spot the difference

In short, the young people whose background could have been limiting their potential to be successful in the future. And that’s what social mobility is about right? Tackling the inequalities that exist in society that have widened the gap between the richest and the poorest, feeding the idea that where you are from, could ultimately dictate where you end up. I started my life in a small village of 150 houses where the only thing I could see from my bedroom window was endless fields and the coast in the distance. Conversely, the young people I taught for two years saw difference. They saw opportunities missed. Things that they believed they might never have for themselves. It wasn’t until I left home at 18, bursting the secure bubble of the Lake District that I’d lived in, that I started to understand just how different we all experience the world around us. I’m not professing to have led a sheltered life up until that point - we had some cracking family holidays in France and the Mediterranean growing up - instead I’m trying to articulate the culture shock that hit me in my first few months studying at Durham University where I started to mix with a much broader range of people from a very different (richer) backgrounds to my own. Whilst I didn’t necessarily feel educationally disadvantaged - I was an A grade student after all - privilege was rife. This made me work harder, not because I had to, but because I wanted to, if only to prove to myself and others that where you come from should not dictate where you end up.

For many, the struggle is still very real

With as much focus as is being given to social mobility, the dial isn’t really shifting. In a recent message to launch the 2019 Youth Voice Census Report Laura-Jane Rawlings, Youth Employment UK CEO, summarises the state of play perfectly:

"We know not all young people are being treated equally; they do not get the same access to services, work experience, or skill development, and the opportunities available to them depend on where they live and who they know. Sometimes the differences exist because of age and gender.

If you are a young person with a disability, mental health issue, or if you are from an underrepresented group you will likely face further inequality. If you fall through the gaps and become NEET, you are likely to struggle in cycles of unemployment and low paid jobs.”
Laura-Jane Rawlings, Youth Employment UK CEO

We need to work harder, and more collaboratively to tackle social mobility. Whilst I appreciate that new rankings such as the social mobility employer index are raising awareness of best practice, they like most rankings are creating more headaches internally and gamifying something which is far from trivial. It might sound harsh but social mobility is not about bragging rights, it’s about equal rights. Don’t get me wrong, we need to start somewhere but what often isn’t shared between us when we strive to ‘climb the rankings’ is the knowledge of how we achieved what we did? They have a habit of becoming trade secrets? Our young people are already far too used to being treated like a number, in a system that’s not loaded in their favour. By doing the same things, in the same places we are doing them no favours.

It’s time to stop marginalising at the margins

So where are we going wrong? How could we be more collaborative in tackling inequalities when it comes to social mobility.

Here I share 3 ideas of my own:

  1. Help to prepare our young people to be ‘able to work’ rather than insisting on them being ‘work ready’: I have literally lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard the term ‘work ready’ being thrown around recently particularly in the schools market. The fact of the matter is that our educational system, and I've have seen this first hand, is not set up to create a workforce whose skills perfectly match the labour market. Consider creating more opportunities to experience the world of work where potential for success from both sides can be explored. Especially if it’s an apprenticeship role, because isn’t the point here to learn the skills on the job, not have them all before you walk in the door…?

  2. Tackle the 'business first’ attitude that creates a fear of leaving desks behind and create opportunities to connect with our young people: I have seen and heard of far too many examples of a growing ‘how long is it going to take?’ culture where being away from a desk/laptop is seen as being a loss to business/a sacrifice against client work and the bottom line. To be frank, there will be no bottom line in the future without a workforce and Gen Z in particular want to meet people in the jobs they are being asked to apply to. A solution? Use CSR days to create ‘back to school’ days where your people visit their old schools - beyond target schools already showered with time and attention, beyond the city limits, perhaps even reaching into cold spots in coastal areas rarely visited. Add value, and go the extra mile(s) - literally.

  3. Look outside of the box, where ‘the box’ is seen as a local school: Spotify’s recent culture report found that 61% of Gen Z think brands have the power to create communities based on common interest and passion - not their background. Micro-communities don’t just happen inside the walls of schools and colleges, they grow and thrive in the communities around them. The communities where the disadvantage often starts. Consider ‘thinking outside the box’ (the school building) and working with local youth centres, councils and charities who already have trusted relationships with young people who are socially disadvantaged, and add value. Show up, consistently. Show you care, more than once a year…

Unless we start to take our responsibilities more seriously and pay less lip service the gap that’s already ridiculously wide is never going to shrink.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash


2019 Youth Voice Census Report

As a proud partner of Youth Employment UK, helping employers to work towards their Youth Friendly Award, I’d highly recommend any with an interest in social mobility and young people to read the latest census report.

Download here.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Youth Friendly Award then get in touch:

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