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Raising the Stakes: Collective Action in Pursuit of Social Mobility: Or is it simply the money?

Bridge Group Meeting Tuesday15th May 2018
"We are in the midst of a profound social crisis.... Britain is deeply divided……. Between the have and the have nots.... Young people are on the sharp end of the divide".

"They will see the challenge of funding as a major obstacle. Addressing this should be the essential and urgent prerequisite to any other actions. Otherwise they are futile and the traction gained from the day is wasted."

On Tuesday of this week, the Bridge Group held a meeting in London at the headquarters of KPMG in Canary Warf on “Raising the Stakes: Collective Action in Pursuit of Social Mobility” This is an urgent crisis and the discussion did not disappoint. A wide range of participants quickly learned from the different perspectives on display. The main disappointment was that there were no teachers present. Likewise, only academics with specific interest in the topic in question were there. A wider range of academics and teachers in other disciplines would have found it illuminating; if only they could find the time to attend. 
The Kings Group itself is an academic group based at Kings College London who are: “A charitable policy association researching and promoting socio-economic diversity and equality” [1]
At the outset KPMG told us about how important numeracy is with the statement: “Most adults have the numeracy of an 11 year old”. An interesting observation to consider when presenting data to most adults. The meeting was  relatively data light; despite the presence of an OECD Economist from Paris observing. However, some of us were fairly numerate at eleven and as a bench mark this may be somewhat flawed. It was more interesting to learn that KPMG might see this as more important to them than the social class of recruits.
The meeting was focussed mainly upon two problems. Firstly class and so called "classism" and then the actions that employers should take to ensure equality at all levels. The problem of financing students in their careers barely broke to the surface. But it surely lurks in the depths of our grossly unequal society.
Class, ‘Classism’ and skewed perceptions.
The notion of class emerged early in the day as contender for the strongest influencing factor for determining success. In modern day UK, this seems a tragic anachronism, yet everyone was accepting the arguments. Mike Savage of the London School of Economics opened the presentations with “Considering Class and Culture”. He painted a pessimistic picture of the UK and the “Classism” that has still to be overcome. It seems that there are very few “working class role models”. His statement that “two thirds of the England team went to private School” was accepted. I assumed he meant Rugby Union (rugger), but it could have been cricket or perhaps many sports in general. I believe that the Association Football (soccer) or Rugby League teams may be somewhat different in composition.

Challenged by me to ask the audience how many were from working class origins, he duly complied. Around 30% or more, many of them young people, raised their hands in a heartening display. His call for more working class role models might be heard after all.

Helping individuals alone was not enough. There had to be “collective action” across the board. Gaining access to an elite institution was not in itself enough. Support at all stages was needed. These were some of his suggestions that are sorely needed

Later Alan Milburn, the erstwhile chair of the Social Mobility Commission, talked of place, people and social mobility. He gave a highly polished speech that betrayed a very strong commitment to the social agenda. That he felt compelled to resign from the chair of the Social Mobility Commission last year means that he must have been unable to tolerate the prevailing situation that government seems to accept. Dressed immaculately in a dark blue suit, tie and sporting shiny black shoes, he told us that one should never attend an interview at an elite employer or institution in brown shoes or use a regional accent. He was, however, the only speaker to raise the point of the great need for fair maintenance grants for students. In asking my question on this matter, I was aware of my Coventry accent and brown (albeit expensive suede) shoes. His message of advice had never actually reached me in all my long and successful career.

Employers and equal progression for all

Justine Greening, the former Education Secretary, duly described her more humble upbringing in Rotherham before challenging all employers to ensure that they promote equal opportunities. She focussed on the role of employers in providing equality of opportunity in recruitment and progression in their organisations. She called for “work experience to be a compulsory part of the curriculum” but feared that “businesses were not remotely set up for this”. Calling for more opportunities to be made available she stressed that “talent is evenly spread and opportunity was not”. career progression in business was just as important and she observed that people develop differently with: “I did not bridge the attainment gap until I graduated”. Her determination to promote equal opportunity with employers through the “Social Mobility Pledge” for businesses is laudable [2]. But why there is a need for her to do this outside of government is disappointing. Her actions and those of Alan Milburn seem to confirm that the current government is not so interested in doing much about social mobility.

The afternoon session focussed on the pivotal role of employers. Some very encouraging comments came from the Civil Service, The BBC, Linklaters and KPMG. All students at school should be made aware of the policies being promoted and how they might enable them launch their careers. Sadly it seems the news is not getting out to them just as the 'brown shoe' advice sailed over my head. The practice of unconditional offers was roundly condemned. It seems that students may lower their study horizons, and A-Level results, as a result. But they might not realise that employers will later put great store in A-Level grades. I knew this – but it seems many students might not realise the damage to their career that they might inflict by slowing down near the end of school.

Louise Ashley of Royal Holloway University raised some very uncomfortable observations of a failure of some to fit in with so called ‘elite’ organisations. She cited “micro- aggression" and gradual erosion of confidence as real issues. Regional accents could be described as “mildly amusing”. Those that feel excluded because of no knowledge of sports such as “skiing” are less likely to have the confidence to fit in and succeed and might not be “confident enough to threaten to leave”; Quote of the day was: “I feel if I comply, I lose my unique selling point, my accent”. Sad that it might be considered as “unique”.

Alan Davey, Controller, BBC Radio 3 observed that: “if I put on a speaker with a northern accent, people immediately complain, but we do it anyway”. A throw away comment maybe, but are there really people out there who are so profoundly stupid and ignorant? It seems that answer is yes. If music be the food of prejudice then play on, they say.

It’s all about the money or the 'Elephant' stays put.


Early on someone mentioned the “Elephant in the room”. I thought it was  more like a herd of elephants since the discussion raised so many worries. However, only on three occasions did the funding raise its head. Surely this was easily the biggest elephant in the herd. Alan Milburn was emphatic on the need to provide adequate maintenance grants whilst supporting fees for those able to pay. However, he did not list this as one of his five practical steps. It seems that many felt that government will have to act on this but then set it aside in the discussion. This is a tragic shame for those already losing out due to financial constraints. UCAS noted that: “cost and transport was a barrier” to something as simple as school students attending open days. This can be solved easily surely. This is a practical demand.

The day was spattered with comments such as “not a zero sum option” and “inclusivity of the learning environment” that in the end did little to address an urgent problem for the country. Alan Milburn pulled no punches in stating that: "We are in the midst of a profound social crisis” “Britain is deeply divided……. Between the have and the have nots....Young people are on the sharp end of the divide". These are fine words but discussion about how to change perceptions and raise aspirations seem somewhat hollow. 
Intelligent young people with little or no family resources will do the math that even an eleven year old could understand. They will see the challenge of funding as a major obstacle. Addressing this should be the essential and urgent prerequisite to any other actions. Otherwise they are futile and the traction gained from the day is wasted.

[2] https://www.socialmobilitypledge.org/

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 

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