David Johnston is the Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.
At the end of the month, I will stood down as Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation after ten years in the position. In many ways those years have been hugely positive, with social mobility now on the agenda of more schools, universities, local authorities and employers than ever before.
The environment has helped SMF go from a small team of three to a national charity serving several thousand young people across the UK and producing an annual index of the employers doing the most on it, which this year included banks, engineering firms, media companies and MI6.
But there is one area in which social mobility seems to be lower on the agenda than at almost any other point in the past 10 years and that is in Parliament. Whilst it would be easy to blame Brexit for this, in truth the champions for social mobility have always been few and far between.
Of course, ask most politicians if they think social mobility is important and they’ll say yes. But ask most Westminster-watchers to name a key figure from each party who they associate with consistently advocating for it in recent years, and the top Family Fortunes answers would probably be Alan Milburn for Labour, Justine Greening for the Conservatives and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats. Two of them are already out of parliament and the third on her way.
Had we solved the UK’s social mobility problem, the lack of attention in parliament might be understandable. But as Reform’s latest State of the State report highlighted, 45 per cnt of people think that today’s young people will have a worse life than their parents. Whilst people’s aspirations haven’t disappeared, their expectations seem to be doing so. If our politicians aren’t thinking about how to help the next generation have a better life than their parents, who will?
If advocates can be found, here is what they might say. They’d say we’ve shown in places like London how to create outstanding schools, but in the most deprived areas only 15 per cent of children attend one. They’d say great teachers are crucial for improving this, but we’ve never found a way to get the best teachers to move to schools that need them most – and we need to.
They’d say the growth of apprenticeships is welcome, particularly those at a higher level, but far too many are still low quality, and the increasing practice of firms putting those on their graduate scheme on apprenticeships just so they can spend the levy money is not what was intended.
They’d point to the good progress we’ve made in disadvantaged young people getting into university, but the bad progress that’s been made in getting them into the elite universities that employers most recruit from. They’d speculate as to where the £750 million universities spend every year on widening access really goes; if that money were being spent on a public contract, we’d hear outrage about it from parliamentarians every week.
They’d be on a roll now. They’d question whether government setting big headline targets like 50 per cent of young people going to university (as Labour did) or creating three million apprenticeships (as the Conservatives did) ever achieve their desired outcome or if they just place quantity above quality.
They’d want to know what the career outcomes for people doing both really are, since neither policy seems to have solved our productivity problem. They’d look at our leading professions and ask if they can really be meritocratic when you’re 24 times more likely to become a doctor if a parent is a doctor and 17 times more likely to become a lawyer if a parent is a lawyer.
They’d want to know why so few people on low pay have escaped it a decade later, and how progression can be improved. They’d find the cost of buses (and trains) in many areas to be a real barrier to people taking advantage of opportunities even if they exist, which too often they do not. They’d look for ways that we can reverse the decline in home ownership amongst the young, one of the things most likely to make them feel they have a real stake in society. And looking closer to home, they’d ask how to get a wider range of people into Parliament, so that they feel less of a lone voice that is always banging on about these issues when they are holding the country back both economically and socially.
Too often, I fear the MPs who are from privileged backgrounds are scared to talk about these issues because of their background, and the ones who are not make everything about their own personal story and thereby don’t bring others over to the cause. Too many people in the UK feel the country doesn’t work for people like them. This won’t be solved by politicians alone – civil society, including businesses, schools and charities like my own all have to play their part. But the absence of advocates in Parliament for improving life chances when so many of their constituents are anxious for their children and grandchildren’s futures is stark.