David Johnston is the MP for Wantage and chairs the Social Mobility APPG.
Have you ever met a working-class doctor?
I’m not teeing up a punchline. Only 6 per cent of our doctors come from a working-class background. You’re 24 times more likely to become a doctor if a parent is one already. So the overwhelming probability was that your answer was no.
Law and journalism are not much better – 12 per cent working-class each. My own field of politics is one of a number of others that also draws from a much narrower range of people than it should. You’d be hard-pressed to argue our institutions make the most of Britain’s talent.
As the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission position becomes vacant as Katharine Birbalsingh leaves the role, it’s a good time to examine exactly what we need to do to improve social mobility. We’ve got into the bad habit of asking ‘what is the Government going to do about this?’ regarding every problem. But while some of what improves social mobility is within the Government’s gift, as so often when this question is posed, much of it is not – nor should it be.
Improve education standards and everything else will take care of itself, the theory goes. Education is certainly very important, which is why the Government’s reforms since 2010 have been so significant. But social mobility can’t be delivered by schools alone.
Social mobility is in part about what happens at home, which some academics estimate determines up to 80 per cent of our outcomes. Who parents are matters less than what they’re doing with their children, from reading to taking them to museums to ensuring they do their homework.
Most politicians won’t talk about parenting. On the left, they fear being accused of demonising parents; on the right, they fear being accused of wanting a nanny state. They are indulged in these straw man arguments by journalists who are quietly doing all the right things with their own children – just as the politicians themselves are. It was therefore very welcome that the Prime Minister stressed the importance of family in his speech last week.
Social mobility is also affected by decisions taken in further and higher education. Does what’s offered actually help people get a job afterward? There’s no shortage of disadvantaged young people in FE, but the quality of the courses they do has been too variable – which last year’s Skills Bill sought to improve.
Meanwhile, in HE, there is a shortage of disadvantaged young people in our leading universities. This matters; they feed our professions. Unfortunately, the recent improvements in recruiting state school entrants that these universities trumpet are not nearly so impressive when you look at how many went to a comprehensive school – as opposed to a selective one – which most of us attend.
Ah, but apprenticeships – these are surely aiding social mobility? Yes and no. The growth in apprenticeships since 2010 has been very welcome. But it is often the highest-level apprenticeships that offer the best career prospects. And the proportion of young people from low-income backgrounds being admitted to these by employers is even lower than the proportion being admitted to our leading universities.
The Government doesn’t decide who does which apprenticeship or degree and we wouldn’t want it to. Many universities and employers set high academic thresholds before you can even apply to them, so when they select, they do so on other factors besides your academic results. Simply improving exam results in schools is not sufficient to change who does what afterward.
Which in turn links back to the figures I opened with and the recruitment practices of employers, where the emphasis is on avoiding risk by hiring people from the same universities and who have the same cultural capital as existing staff.
It’s common to argue that social mobility shouldn’t be about leaving your home area, going to a Russell Group university, and getting a ‘middle-class’ job. But show me someone who says this and, most times, I’ll show you someone who did exactly that themselves.
Which doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We must continue to redirect jobs and investment to other parts of the country. But we have to also recognise there is still a place for the routes those commentators wanted for themselves and, of course, still frequently pursue for their own children.
So what do we need? We do need to keep improving schools – and we should judge them by where their pupils go after they’ve left, rather than just headline exam results. We also need to support parents with knowing the right things to do with their children and give their role as much attention as we give the teachers.
We need colleges to offer courses that aid employability and universities to admit those who have the most potential rather than the most practice at their admission exercises. We need more work experience for young people who lack connections and to ensure internships are always paid so they’re not just accessible to people from wealthier families. We need employers to have selection processes that judge your potential instead of how polished you are, whether it’s for a higher-level apprenticeship or a graduate job.
Employers should devote as much effort to recruiting from different social backgrounds as they do recruiting women and ethnic minorities. There are strong overlaps for one thing, and if the only women and ethnic minorities ever hired by an organisation are all privately educated and from professional families, it’s clearly not a place that is open to talent from all backgrounds, whatever the website says.
This list is not exhaustive and we need it all country-wide, with a focus on disadvantaged areas. Government has an important role to play but it cannot, and should not, be held solely responsible for all things that influence social mobility. From home to the workplace, everyone has to play their part. If they don’t, we’ll never increase the chances of you meeting a working-class doctor, lawyer, journalist, or MP.