David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.
My old school, near Consett in County Durham, overlooked the site of the former steelworks. When I attended the school during the early 1990s, life still seemed to be overshadowed by the closure of ‘the works’, which had thrown thousands of people out of work. The 1970s buildings and temporary prefabs have gone now, with the school demolished and moved to a shiny new building near the town centre. I often think of the school, though, when I consider the complexity of the debate about social mobility.
So many of my hugely talented schoolmates weren’t able to fulfil their potential at a time when the school only averaged 12 per cent of pupils achieving five or more “good GCSEs”. Those who did want to pursue professional careers had no choice other than to go “up and out”, maybe to Newcastle and often to London.
Plenty of people also didn’t want to leave their friends, family and roots behind, despite the lack of economic opportunity in the town and the gradual depreciation of alternatives to academic education. The school also reminds me that when education reform works well it can be transformative, with the school moving from “failing” to being a model of school improvement.
Social mobility is a complicated issue and can’t be approached in a myopic way. Improving social mobility is essential for a fairer society in which we allow everyone to make the most of their potential. But social reform should have more than one string to its bow, which is why levelling up and creating quality jobs for everyone is so crucial.
It’s essential to improve access to the professions for people from all backgrounds, but it’s also crucial to ensure that the debate about social mobility doesn’t become one of escape for a few with only one route to a fulfilling career, but one of dignified, high quality, fulfilling jobs for everyone.
Social mobility – still a closed shop?
In reality, not enough structural change has been achieved and many professions remain closed shops. Analysis of various top professions, such as banks and accountancy firms shows that seven per cent of the population continues to be massively over-represented, with 35 per cent of recent recruits in finance and 60 per cent of financial leaders coming from a private school background.
The AHRC have declared an “arts emergency” because of the lack of working class representation in cultural industries. The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that about 40 per cent of what they described as the elite attended fee-paying schools, including 44 per cent of top newspaper columnists and two thirds of senior judges. Those from better off backgrounds are still 80 per cent more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from working class backgrounds.
Education reform has brought about notable improvement, but there is still much more to be done. The gap between disadvantaged 16 year olds and other pupils is over 20 per cent, and a much higher proportion of schools deemed inadequate or needing improvement by Ofsted are located in the most deprived areas.
Whereas some 45 per cent of 18 year olds now attend university, that figure falls to 29 per cent for those on free school meals and to only five per cent for the top third of universities. For white, working class boys, the figures are even more shaming, with only 13 per cent going on to university. There’s even a class gap for those young people from working class backgrounds who make it into professional occupations, earning 17 per cent less than those from more privileged backgrounds.
Opening up the professions should undoubtedly continue to be a key goal of social progress. And the responsibility there lies with government, universities and employers. It’s for government to continue pushing ahead with education reform, but also ensuring that this is relentlessly focused on the most deprived areas. This should also include measures to make sure that the best teachers are incentivised to teach in those areas that have been most left behind.
Universities and employers also have an important role to play, which means making sure that the ubiquitous topic of diversity doesn’t ignore socio-economic class. Vogueish, but flawed, concepts like “white privilege” shouldn’t stand in the way of business and academia redoubling their efforts to increase representation of those from poorer backgrounds. Many “entry” jobs now require degrees in a way that wasn’t the case a number of decades ago and professional services firms should also consider how to expand apprenticeship programmes and increase the number of entry routes not requiring a degree.
Escape or empowerment? Remembering those left behind
It seemed for a while that social mobility was the only big idea of some social reformers, but taken in isolation it only represents half of the trick. Social mobility is insufficient if it means that the talented few should be able to leave their home towns and join the managerial elite, with scant attention being given to those left behind. A shallow approach to social mobility, which portrays professional careers as the only means of economic achievement and advancement, risks fuelling a sense of snobbery towards those who haven’t achieved this success and resentment amongst those struggling to make ends meet.
In many ways, it was this myopic approach that created the lingering resentment and anger that led to Brexit. As philosopher, Michael Sandel argued in his excellent The Tyranny of Merit, an obsession with helping a few to rise, combined with a meritocratic ideal that argues success is self-earned and failure self-inflicted, has created a sense of hubris at the top and humiliation at the bottom.
This is why Levelling Up is as important a project as improving social mobility, and the two should work together. It should not be taken as a given that someone who wants to succeed in the professions should have to leave their home town – social mobility should not always equate to geographic mobility.
Building strong, dynamic local economies is an important part of ensuring that social mobility does not equate to a brain drain. The ‘Levelling Up’ fund is an important starting point for this and government should also provide the tools to local people and local authorities to help them achieve an economic transformation. Major professional services firms should consider whether they can geographically diversify.
As well as creating the opportunity for the growth of professional jobs around the country, considering Levelling Up alongside social mobility also means that there should be a rethink about what “success’ equates to in a modern economy. The post-Blair route of higher education leading on to a professional job is of limited utility to many young people, some of whom have found the promised “graduate dividend” to be elusive. Considering how we can have a technical stream that has equal esteem to an academic stream could work in tandem with a push towards innovation and manufacturing to create a high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy that is much more regionally balanced.
A multi-dimensional approach to social mobility
Social mobility is important. But social mobility alone is not enough. Opening up the professions to people from disadvantaged backgrounds should be only one part of a broader remaking of the economy. This should include ensuring that people in all jobs are treated with dignity and respect and the elevation of technical education and apprenticeships, so that there are multiple, equally valid routes to economic mobility. Levelling up, enhancing social mobility and promoting a reindustrialisation of the economy can, taken together, create an economy that allows everyone to flourish