Brexit’s mobility challenge
Conor Ryan reflects on how the referendum aftermath should impact on social mobility
It is not as simple as saying – as many do – that we are heading out of the European Union thanks to the disaffected poor who felt their needs were overlooked by the distant metropolitan elite.
As YouGov’s final polling showed, there was a huge age divide too – 71% of 18-24 year-olds were for remain versus 64% of the over-65s backing leave – and a marked difference between those with different levels of education – those with few formal qualifications voted Leave in as great a proportion as graduates voted remain.
There is undoubtedly a strong degree of disaffection among older poorer voters. And this underlines more than ever the importance of ensuring that educational and employment opportunities are available for their children. In a sense, intergenerational poverty could breed intergenerational disaffection if whoever emerges as our political leadership in the months ahead doesn’t address the social mobility issue head on.
We need to start young. The gaps in school readiness at age 5 – the bottom 10% are 19 months behind the richest 10% – continue through the education system. While the pupil premium and other education reforms have reduced the gaps at age 11, on traditional measures little has changed at GCSE and there are still eight-fold access gaps to our leading universities.
As I have argued before, there is a danger that those gaps will perpetuate in the new accountability regime – though there is also growing evidence that such gaps are far from universal – so it is increasingly important that rhetorical choices between apprenticeships, college and university are made a reality in ways that really make a difference to young people’s life chances.
This matters at several levels. The Sutton Trust has long championed the importance of changing the elites – and the referendum has arguably thrown that into sharp relief – where our research earlier this year found that the privately educated continue to dominate in the professions. Even in politics, half of the current cabinet went to private school, and that’s a lower proportion than the coalition cabinet.
Politics needs to become more representative – something the social mobility APPG will be discussing later this month – but so does the leadership of all those institutions that affect our lives.
But change needs to come at every level. We have seen a welcome embrace of transparency in school-level data over the last 25 years, with the chance now to compare schools on a like for like basis as never before. That has spurred real improvement, and with the pupil premium has placed the attainment of disadvantaged pupils centre stage.
Yet there still remains a real challenge narrowing the gap between London and other parts of the country, in part because of different attitudes to reform, but equally the result of differential access to good teachers and demographic differences. It may be no accident that the strongest Brexit votes came in coastal areas and North East cities where students end up with fewest qualifications. The urgency of addressing those inequities has never been greater.
Equally, there is a real challenge assessing the value of post-school opportunities. Colleges have been measured on ‘success rates’ for too long, rather than student outcomes. There are welcome moves to change this, though the danger is that the data is presented in ways that are not easily understood – a real danger too with the new GCSE rankings (replacing A-E with 1-9). The best colleges transform lives, but it is vital that in communities where colleges are the only source of post-16 education that the current patchwork of performance is transformed for the better.
More worrying, perhaps, is the emphasis on quantity over quality in the apprenticeships programme. Apprenticeships are back in vogue, which is a good thing. But for young people, it is not good enough that only 40% of them lead to a qualification at level 3 – A level equivalent – or above. Too few teachers will recommend apprenticeships, but until the government is clear that every young person starting a level 2 apprenticeship will progress to a level 3 without having to change course – as is the way in what are still (for now) our European partners – that won’t change.
And finally we need to shake the university sector out of its complacency and open it up to a transparency that has been alien to them for far too long. It is good that they are judged on impact in the research excellence framework, and that the teaching excellent framework will force them to think more about how they impart knowledge to those paying them £9000 a year in fees.
But it is quite appalling that universities can refuse to co-operate in publishing the data on earnings by course linked to tax data from HMRC, something that Anna Vignoles worked with IFS to show recently at an aggregate level. We will be working with MPs to get that changed in the higher education bill. Students have a right to know the worth of their courses, not least when our data has shown that on average higher apprenticeships may be an option as good – or even better – financially.
So if we are to ensure that the disillusionment that led to Brexit among their grandparents – and many of their parents – is not translated through the generations, we need to make sure not only that opportunity is available to young people across Britain, but that it is provided in a way that is open and honest about the strengths and shortcomings of different pathways. Brexit may have its long term economic downsides, but politicians of all parties need to find ways to ensure that the young who voted overwhelmingly to remain have the chance to use their talents to the full.