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The Great Debate: Social Mobility

“Whole tracts of Britain feel left behind. Whole communities feel the benefits of globalisation have passed them by. Whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed. The growing sense that we have become an us-and-them society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. There is a mood for change in Britain.”

By Jeremy Swan - 30 November 2017

Since that day when Theresa May stood outside Downing Street promising to help people who are “just managing”, social mobility has been brought into the spotlight of public debate. When asked in a nationwide survey, four out of five people said there is a large gap between the social classes in Britain. The results also showed a deep geographical divide, with nearly three-quarters of people saying there were large differences in opportunity depending on where you live. Derby is one of these areas, having been identified as a social mobility ‘cold spot’ by the government and designated as an ‘Opportunity Area’. With this issue right on our doorstep, we gathered together some experts to discuss the challenges around social mobility.

At the table

“The truth is we dump children out of the system, the word ‘exclusion’ says it all,” Joe Russo begins. “Did you know, that up until recently, the UK put more children behind bars than anywhere else in Europe? £2 billion is being cut from youth services and the social mobility gap has widened dramatically. Another big issue I find with exclusion is around cultural integration, with groups like the Roma community.”

Ruth Richardson agrees: “Sadly it is a systemic issue that stereotypes and disproportionately impacts Roma people. About 14% of school exclusions in Derby involve Roma young people, but they only make up about 3% of the city’s population. We clearly have a problem with supporting some Roma young people to transition into the education system, so many end up in pupil referral units where attainment nationally is generally low. What we’re doing is pushing an already marginalised community out of mainstream education.”

“It’s a two-way street though,” Joe Russo responds. “There’s got to be an element of responsibility placed on the community itself. You have to change and adapt – but the authorities need to support you. I know, because I’m a first-generation immigrant myself.”

Hard-to-reach groups

Jo Astley believes that connecting with hard-to-reach groups is a real problem: “I’m working with a lot of white working class boys – a group where attainment is often low – to build confidence and raise aspirations. The problem is that the kids are coming up against competing pressures from their peer groups and families.”

Studies have shown that parental engagement is a key factor in educational attainment. However, reaching out is not always easy, according to David Martin: “I know teachers who say that many parents just aren’t interested in their child’s education, so there’s no point even trying to speak to them. They’re just told it has nothing to do with them.”

“In my experience, the reason why young boys join gangs is because they’re trying to create a sense of family,” says Joe Russo. “They’ve got those role models and they can see their progression route. It’s not uncommon for them to tell you they want to be a drug dealer one day. For boys, the problem is that often the only time they come across a man it’s in a negative sense: someone abusing their mum, a copper nicking them or a teacher giving them a rollicking.

“At Enthusiasm we believe that good role models are critical and, in fact, some of our staff were once those same young people we work with. Let me tell you about Carlos. He was facing charges of attempted burglary and had a number of issues going on. He’s now 24 and is probably one of the best engagement workers in Derby.”

Having good support networks around young people helps them to achieve their goals, says Jo Astley: “Resilience is so important because it gives you the building blocks to be successful in education, work or whatever your ambition is.”

“Family plays an important role in creating that kind of grit,” adds Joe Russo. “It isn’t necessarily about blood, it’s about how we care for each other. It’s that kind of support network that we are trying to build.”

Just as role models are important for young people, organisations can spur each other on to bring change, remarks David Martin: “Like any business, you want to be leading the way and setting an example for others. We’ve tried to do this ourselves over the years. Recently, we realised one of our biggest barriers to social mobility at PwC was around UCAS tariff points. We used to have a minimum number of points that you needed to come and work for us. But we decided to remove this two years ago, because we felt we were missing out on talented people who might have struggled with attainment in the past.

“I interview a lot of candidates who come through this route, and many are absolutely fascinating people who are more well-rounded in terms of life experiences and I’m always impressed by their level of drive. We have certainly benefited as a firm by taking that barrier down.”

Taking social mobility seriously

“Strong leadership is definitely a key factor in bringing about change,” adds Ruth Richardson. “There are significant challenges with social mobility but I’m encouraged that the government wants to tackle this issue. Locally, it’s great that the Opportunity Area is being chaired by Professor Kathryn Mitchell, the University’s Vice-Chancellor. We need our leaders to take social mobility seriously.”

“Funding is a major problem though”, observes Jo Astley. “My team run government-backed outreach programmes, but we only have guaranteed funding for two years. This means we don’t have the ability to develop longitudinal programmes that work with young people and their families from primary school all the way through to post-16. In reality, we need guaranteed funding for ten or fifteen years to really make a difference.”

Joe Russo adds: “My concern is that the funding often isn’t used to help the most vulnerable young people, because you can get quicker results elsewhere. We need to tackle these difficult issues if we are to see meaningful change.”

But what kind of change are do we want to see? The panel agree that we should be looking beyond attainment if we want to build a better society.

“I think we need a greater emphasis on developing values and good character in young people,” Joe Russo suggests. “Instead, we measure people on how many qualifications they have, how big their house is, how much money they earn. Does that really matter?”

Ruth Richardson agrees: “Rather than measuring our success as a country by how rich we are, why don’t we measure ourselves by how happy people are? As the UK has seen increasing economic growth it has also recorded skyrocketing numbers of people experiencing mental health problems. At the end of the day, surely it is health and happiness that really counts.”

As the discussion draws to a close, it’s clear that social mobility is a complex issue that cannot be solved easily. But the feeling around the table is that we shouldn’t shy away from the difficult questions and that each of us has a responsibility to act.

“It’s not about finding one solution that will magically fix things”, concludes David Martin. “It’s about lots of different things that, when bundled together, allow you to build momentum. We all must do our bit.”

About the author

Jeremy Swan
External Relations Officer

Jeremy is a former External Relations Officer at the University of Derby and a regular contributor to the award-winning University Magazine.