Two positive indicators for east London are masking a deeper underlying problem
Alan Milburn, the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission resigned today, together with the other Commissioners. He cites a lack of progress as the reason for going – and all the recent reports from the Commission do highlight the stalling of progress on social mobility. In these blogs I have often pointed to the evidence that participation in higher education no longer drives social mobility in the way it once did.
That said the Social Mobility Commission report published this week showed that most of the east London boroughs in which ELBA works with our business and community partners are in the top ten areas where social mobility prospects are greatest. So is that right? My answer is yes and no.
Firstly, yes, it is true we are sitting on a bit of a success story in east London. Over the last fifteen years the level of educational attainment has risen from among the lowest in the country to right up at the top, in line with a general uplift in education across London. But the east London story is really remarkable because the achievement has been made at a time when there are high levels of children living in poverty. According to the latest version of London’s Poverty Profile, 43% of children in Tower Hamlets live below the poverty line, and it’s 37-38% in each of Newham, Hackney, Islington and Barking and Dagenham. It’s a testament to the ambition and drive of families and parents, as well as the skill and dedication of teachers, local authorities and all the other professionals involved, to make such progress in such circumstances. And the students themselves, of course.
We don’t make enough of this success – there is a tendency to default to talk about the problems of east London – and with such levels of poverty that’s understandable. But we should look on this as setting up a brighter future for all young people. And in some ways I wasn’t surprised therefore to see that east London boroughs were rated highly in the Social Mobility Commission’s annual “state of the nation” report. Eleven out of their 16 indicators are related to early years and educational attainment and progress.
But then again, no – the poverty figures quoted above show that despite the gains in educational attainment, earnings and career progression are not keeping pace, and I fear that the Social Mobility Index may be giving a false picture. If a family has supported and backed their children through the education system all the way to getting a good degree, and then sees that commensurate jobs and earnings are not available to them, while children from more advantaged backgrounds with the same qualifications are getting good jobs with good pay, then there is a problem brewing.
What to do? ELBA works with business and community partners who are determined to do their bit to make things better – we can’t necessarily change the world but we can improve the prospects for people – one by one. Here are five things we can do:
– Match “Widening Participation” access to higher education with “Fairer Destinations”. ELBA will be shortly publishing some research which will show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds carry that disadvantage through to graduation and beyond – striving in the education system is just not paying the dividends it should for some.
– Let’s all get behind apprenticeships and show how they can be a high status option alongside progression to university. There is a sustained campaign to be delivered here, and we all have a part to play.
– Improve careers information and experiences, so that young people – and their parents – have a wider view of the opportunities available, the likely jobs and earnings outcomes from them, and help everyone to make better decisions.
– Where it has not worked out right first time for young people, let’s give them a second chance, and help them break through some of the barriers they face which may not be of their making.
– Change recruitment practice so that we select on the potential of the human being, not on some preconceived idea of what good looks like based on what it looked like 20 years ago. ELBA is lucky enough to work with employers who are at the forefront of this. But we need more to adopt the best practice, and this will be the theme of our major event for business leaders on 19th January – Leadership and Inclusion.
At the end of the day the Social Mobility Index is a relative listing. Being towards the top doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy, just that it is a bit better than being at the bottom. There is still a long way to go – and overall, social mobility is stalling in the UK. The frustrating thing from ELBA’s perspective is that the steps to get it moving again are relatively simple, and not particularly expensive. We just need to get on with it.
We look forward to hearing about the direction the new Commissioners will take.