James Turner, our CEO, reflects on 25 years of efforts to improve social mobility in Britain.

A great deal has changed in the world and in politics since 1997. Then, new Labour were on the ascendancy, Bill Clinton was starting his second term – and we knew nothing of the War on Terror, or of Covid 19 and its implications. In our world, the term social mobility was unheard of outside a small academic circle, the pupil premium was over a decade away from inception, and the idea of running a randomised control trial in schools (let alone over 200, as the Education Endowment Foundation has now done) would have more than raised eyebrows. Fair access to university was not front-page news – and the state school intake of Oxbridge (a flawed but powerful symbol of opportunity) languished at less than fifty percent.

Sir Peter Lampl founded the Trust to address a fundamental injustice he saw when he returned to Britain in the mid-1990s: that access to the highest performing universities and schools had gone backwards since the Fifties and Sixties when he was growing up, and he doubted that someone like him could have made his journey from council estate to business entrepreneur.

Fast forward 25 years (and 13 Education Secretaries later) and social mobility is firmly rooted in the national conversation. In the last five years alone, there were 1,700 mentions of the term in Parliament – compared to just seven in the five years before 1997. Whatever the more recent arguments around terminology, the essence of social mobility – that every child should have the same opportunities to thrive, based on talent and aspiration, rather than family background – is largely uncontested. The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is absolutely about social mobility, which can (and should) be local and regional as well as national and international, and from the bottom to the middle, as well as the top.

Hundreds of millions of pounds is now spent by universities on widening access and supporting students from low income backgrounds in higher education. Many of those initiatives have been inspired by the Trust’s own programmes, including our summer schools. Today, a rich ecosystem of non-profits supports the work of universities and schools by engaging pupils earlier on to nurture their talent; the Trust is especially proud to have supported the creation of Into University, The Brilliant Club and the Children’s University Trust. And the idea of considering students’ potential, as well as their achievements (something Peter first witnessed at the US Ivy Leagues) is firmly rooted in the admissions processes of all our universities. Meanwhile, Oxford and Cambridge’s state school intake is now almost 70 percent – and our student body is more socio-economically diverse than ever before.

On the schools front, Academies have more freedoms to give priority to low-income students and to use, for example, admissions ballots to ensure their intakes reflect their community. The expansion of the country’s 164 remaining grammar schools is tied to widening access to poorer pupils, and there are promising instances of great outreach work to level the playing field (as much as possible) before children sit the 11 plus. And on independent schools, the expectation to promote opportunity through partnerships and bursaries is well established – even if these don’t go as far as the Open Access scheme that the Trust would like to see. And crucially we have a funding system which recognises disadvantage through the Pupil Premium and an evidence base to back it up, courtesy of the EEF.

In the workplace, it is now unconscionable that any employer worth their social mobility salt would offer an unpaid internship. And we have more and more firms monitoring the socio-economic backgrounds of their employees as a first step to widening their talent pipeline and the progression prospects of their staff from poorer homes. Countless industry-led and business-specific initiatives have sprung up to support social mobility and ingrain it in everyday work.

The Trust can rightly claim some of the credit for the progress that has been made. As we turn 25, we are proud to have directly helped over 50,000 young people to transform their lives, and indirectly support hundreds of thousands more through our grants and scale-up work. We have released over 250 pieces of agenda-setting research which has led to us substantially influencing policy on more than 30 occasions, as well as the practices of universities, schools and employers.

But this is no time to take our foot off the gas. The research we released last week warned of bleak consequences for future mobility levels, driven by the learning loss during the pandemic, an impending cost of living crisis and deepening divides in home ownership. Outcomes for children remain stubbornly tied to their parents’ own wealth and status. Championing social mobility is like pushing water uphill. Better off parents are investing more than ever before in giving their own children an edge. That’s an understandable instinct, but it makes the job of levelling the playing field for those without resources or know-how even harder.  Who knows how big the inequalities in opportunity would now be had it not been for the gargantuan efforts of teachers, charities and other advocates of social mobility?

That’s why the work of the Trust will still be needed in the next 25 years – and why we are so grateful to the team of staff, supporters, partners, board members and trustees who have joined our relentless campaign for fairness. And it is also why we should be focussing our collective efforts on boosting social mobility in its many forms, rather than debating false choices about which types of mobility are ‘best’. There’s plenty of work to do.

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