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Want more social mobility? Let’s start by challenging the double standards

University of Oxford visit

SMF students visiting the University of Oxford

Earlier this month I attended a debate on social mobility with much discussion of what role each key actor should play. Three of the main contributors argued strongly that we have to ‘get away from the notion social mobility means poor children getting into Oxbridge’. I agree there is much more to social mobility than this, but couldn’t help noticing the three people – a Select Committee Chair, a rapidly rising teacher and a charity chief executive I consider a friend – had attended Cambridge, Oxford and Cambridge respectively. I myself attended Oxford. If the four of us think that is a coincidence then that’s one thing, but I rather suspect we’ve all benefitted from it in ways we don’t even realise and I think it’s a rather important demonstration of why getting poor children into Oxbridge and the like remains so important.

The discussion got me thinking again about the double standards often applied in the social mobility debate. University Vice-Chancellors outside the Russell Group frequently describe worrying about who goes to Russell Group universities as anywhere from unhelpful to pernicious.  Yet as the Commission’s Elitist Britain report showed, 53% of them went to a Russell Group university for their own degrees. Coincidence? I think not, and if it was alright for them to go to one to help their careers then others from less privileged backgrounds deserve not to have the efforts helping them follow the same path, should they want to, diverted elsewhere. Another double standard is true of journalists criticising politicians for being privately educated in large numbers, despite 43% of newspaper columnists also being privately educated. As the Commission’s report showed, there is a problem in politics, but conduct of our public life as a whole is unrepresentative of the country’s talent. With just 7% of people attending private school and Oxbridge representing just 2 of over 120 UK universities, believing all our talent is found in these institutions would be like believing all the best lawyers could be found at just 7% of firms or all the best footballers at just two clubs. Some, yes, but not the proportions the report found.

A similar double standard applies when it comes to how some people describe the Commission’s recommendations on areas such as widening work experience opportunities to those who don’t currently get them as ‘positive discrimination’. For the record, the Commission is not advocating for positive discrimination but for levelling the playing field. Yet for decades people have used who they know to get work experience, guidance on their applications and even jobs, with a study suggesting 60% of jobs are never advertised. No-one seemed to use ‘discrimination’ to describe the restriction of work experience opportunities to the bloodline of current employees and clients, the giving of internship opportunities only to those who can afford to work unpaid or offering jobs to your friends. On the contrary, organisations at which such things happen typically trumpet what meritocracies they believe they are and how they ‘don’t care where people come from, we just want the best people’. Yet if there was ever a case of ‘discrimination’, of a leg-up being given to people not because they are in fact the best, but because they have the best connections, it is in the practises the Commission is arguing should change.

The key reason for doing so is we’re not making enough of the country’s talent. There was clearly a meeting of some sort among the most vocal opponents of widening access where they agreed if they all suggested this would mean your hospital operation would be carried out by someone unqualified you wouldn’t want it. You wouldn’t, but no-one is arguing for that. I don’t believe removing the hurdles people from less privileged backgrounds encounter in trying to enter our leading professions would somehow lead to ‘lower standards’ or ‘compromising excellence’, stock phrases some often trot out; quite the contrary.

The people who think that if poor people enter professions they must be unqualified clearly haven’t spent much time with the sort of young people the Social Mobility Foundation works with, the majority of whom are on Free School Meals. Each summer 40% of those reporting their A-Level grades to us have achieved AAA+ and 53% of their university destinations are in the Russell Group. Over 85% of the employers we work with think the young people they host on placements through us are the calibre they’d employ, yet 95% of the young people say they couldn’t have got the placements without the SMF’s programme.

At the SMF we are very clear that the young people we work with need to know our leading professions target their recruitment at Russell Group universities. They may decide not to apply to or go to one, and many people may disagree with employers targeting in this way, but to pretend they don’t would be dishonest. Taking together 27 categories of role the Commission looked at, an average of 58% of people occupying positions went to a Russell Group university; in one category (senior judges) it is 94%. It makes it very important that those universities are judging potential, not least as more and more studies show undergraduates from state schools can and do outperform those from private schools with similar grades. I play a part in the Commission’s efforts to encourage universities to offer sustained engagement programmes that tackle the feeling such universities are ‘not for the likes of me’ and to contextualise the educational achievements of the candidates they see, as if you only count A*s at GCSE, the schools that produce A*s by rote will always be over-represented.

Similarly, I help the Commission to encourage employers to widen the number of universities they target as we don’t believe all the country’s talent comes from a small number of universities, or even from university – we also encourage employers to have well-structured non-graduate routes. Until such time as there is a significant change – and the Commission is making slow but steady progress – the SMF will continue to give 16-18 year olds honest information about the current picture so they can make informed choices about the professions they’re interested in, the sort of informed choices their better-off competitors are helped to make.

It’s right that people should debate the best ways to get talented people into leading professions and whether or not the Commission is making the right recommendations. What’s not is attempting to close down debate by chucking around phrases designed to obscure what’s really being recommended and why. Nor is seeking to deny opportunities to others you yourself had having now got to where you wanted to and either deciding, or simply hoping, you did it all on your own efforts, without ever benefitting from either personal connections or the badge of the institutions you studied at. The facts suggest that’s unlikely to have been the case.

David Johnston is Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation and a member of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. 

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