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Breaking the Class Ceiling

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Conor Ryan on what this week’s news tells us about social mobility

Education Secretary Justine Greening recalled yesterday how she’s missed out on a banking job because she hadn’t taken a gap year. “I was too embarrassed to admit that I simply couldn’t afford one,” she told an event organised jointly by the Sutton Trust and PriceWaterhouseCoopers yesterday.

Outlining her vision for social mobility, she admitted that she was fortunate to get a job at PWC and to progress to become an MP and a cabinet minister despite her modest beginnings. And she was perhaps fortunate to face that particular mobility barrier as the guilty bank was Barings.

As the first comprehensive educated Conservative education secretary, Justine Greening has shown an admirable determination to place social mobility at the top of her political agenda. Yesterday she announced funding for new research schools in her flagship social mobility programme of Opportunity Areas. The new schools will be run by the Education Endowment Foundation with the York-based Institute for Effective Education and will help transmit evidence on what works across other schools in their locality to address educational inequalities.

Today’s GCSE results show some signs that disadvantaged students are doing better in school – more are doing the EBacc than before and English and Maths results are improving. But the gap in attainment in the core subjects remains stubbornly high and the new Progress 8 measure underlines just how far behind many disadvantaged students are even allowing for where they started. Those gaps are still much more pronounced outside London.

The extent of the challenge was laid bare on Tuesday in a new report, Class Ceiling, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility. The APPG, for which the Sutton Trust acts as the secretariat, took as its starting point the Leading People 2016 report last year which showed how across most major professions over half of all the top jobs are taken by those who went to private schools, and many were also Oxbridge graduates.

A lot of the coverage on the APPG focused on the call for a ban on unpaid internships, something the Trust has also called for in the past linked to research on the cost working without pay. Justine Greening was instinctively against a ban when questioned about this yesterday. But unless firms that hire people for months unpaid start to pay at least the minimum wage these opportunities will remain beyond those unable to access the Bank of Mum and Dad or with a family home near their workplace.

The APPG’s recommendations, based on evidence from a host of professions over the last six months, also urged fairer and more transparent recruitment practices by employers, including contextual practices that place attainment and successes achieved in the context of disadvantage, including underperforming schools and less advantaged neighbourhoods.

They argued that employers should be conscious of the impact of recruiting from a narrow pool of universities in the graduate ‘milk round’, and the social mix of institutions, building on the work already being done in some elite professions.

This is not without controversy, as some rather excitable Daily Mail coverage showed, wrong suggesting that employers should ignore qualifications and ban all internships. In fact, as with similar programmes in universities, this is about recognising that an able young person who went to a tough school and got good results will have had to show far more grit and resilience than a pupil who went to a fee paying school.

However, this doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the same social skills. And this remains a challenge. Our research has also shown that not only do privately educated graduates earn more than those with similar degrees who went to state schools. It underlines the importance of developing those skills and school and university, particularly for those the Education Secretary likes to call ‘rough diamonds’.

It is great that social mobility is now so high up the government’s agenda. And there are clearly lots of things schools need to do to improve opportunities for disadvantaged young people, not least for those whose ability shines at eleven but isn’t properly harnessed through secondary school.

But this is not just an agenda for schools. It is about what business and universities do to foster and develop talent – and to remove the financial and social barriers that prevent success.