The next phase for social mobility: what role can the education and skills system play?

January 30, 2017


The EU referendum shone a spotlight on the sense of disconnect felt by large numbers of people in the UK: a disconnect from society, from the economy and from opportunity. With Theresa May focusing on delivering an “economy for all”, how can we address ‘left behind’ groups and improve social mobility across the UK? And what role can the education and skills system play in particular?

This was the focus of a Demos roundtable we hosted last week, bringing together representatives from across business, schools, universities and the third sector. A topic like social mobility naturally leads to a wide-ranging discussion, and this was no exception, but there were three key themes that resonated with me in particular.

First, the impact of geography on a person’s life prospects - be that health, jobs or housing - means that tackling barriers to social mobility needs a local approach. The need for a place-based approach is recognised by the Government’s focus on ‘opportunity areas’, as highlighted by Justine Greening in a recent speech at PwC, and we’re now considering how we can use our strong regional network to support this approach. Devolution also offers a real opportunity for local stakeholders, from across the public, private and third sector, to come together and shape an approach which addresses local challenges and labour markets.  

Second, social mobility is a lifelong journey. Many factors of disadvantage are already apparent before children reach education, yet much of the policy focus is on the formal education and skills system. This means that a coordinated strategy is needed to improve social mobility, including a focus on early years, social care and health, as well as education.  Broadening the focus from the individual and working with parents, families and communities to improve life skills and engagement, and lift aspiration and ambition, is also key.  

While the issue may may be lifelong, transition points are critical, whether that is between primary and secondary education, considering options at the age of 16, moving between school or university and the world of work, or progression within a profession. At each point of transition, there is a need for support, guidance and coaching to ensure that young people have the soft skills and information they need to progress. The example of apprenticeships was highlighted: whereas UCAS is a relatively simple process for applying to university courses, there is no equivalent for apprenticeships, or technical and vocational education, leaving students having to navigate a complex landscape on their own.  

Finally, collaboration will be critical in order to make any improvements in social mobility. While many individual organisations, be they universities, schools or businesses, will have a range of initiatives aimed at improving social mobility, there is undoubtedly more that could be achieved by coming together and working in a more coordinated way, at both the local and national level. It is only by working together that we can truly address the barriers to social mobility and deliver an education and skills system that works for all.

Ian Looker | National Education Leader
Email | +44 (0)113 288 2019

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