James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, discusses why putting social mobility at the top of the political agenda is so important.

Britain’s divides have come into sharp relief over the last few months and years: between north and south, urban and rural, young and old, wealthy and poor. And a glance at the papers, or overheard conversations on trains and in cafes, reveals a disquiet about the future that is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my adult life.  But even against that backdrop, the scale of pessimism in Britain – revealed by our polling today – gives a worrying new complexion to the general election campaign.  

Just over ten years ago, when we asked the public whether they thought people have equal opportunities to get ahead in life, 53% responded positively.  Fast forward to 2017 and the figure had dropped to 40%. When asked last week, the figure now stands at just 35% – a decline of almost 20 percentage points in a decade   

These results are mirrored in people’s views on the chances of today’s young people compared to their parents.  As of last week, almost half thought today’s youth would be worse off than their mothers and fathers’ generation, up from 12% when we first asked the question in 2003.  And the public also think ‘who you know’ and coming from a wealthy family are increasingly important in how well you do in life. 

The Sutton Trust has spent over twenty years documenting the inequalities in our education system as an important driver of social mobility, and supporting projects and policies to make things fairer.  While we have not seen the progress we would have liked, educational inequalities have not burgeoned over the last decade – and there are some signs of progress. So why has pessimism around our social mobility prospects grown so dramatically?  

Some big macro issues are at play. The polling shows that attitudes were more positive before the 2008 financial crisis  and before austerity and economic slowdown bit hard.  Unsurprisingly, regardless of what’s happening in schools and universities, people are much more likely to be optimistic about the chances of social mobility for them and their children in an economy that is expanding.  The current uncertainty around Brexit and its implications adds to these concerns. 

There is also a growing realisation that this generation of young people might also be the first in modern times to have lower living standards than their parents. A decline in secure employment, and much greater number of transient jobs is one explanation –an uncertainty that is magnified by upcoming challenges around automation which will reshape the labour market  Added to this is the increasing unaffordability of housing and the fact that getting on the property ladder is often out of reach of young people, even those with good jobs. Young people today are also getting a less favourable deal in a number of other areas, such as student debt, and pension prospects, particularly in comparison to their parents’ generation.   

It is easy to be paralysed by the magnitude and complexity of these problems – and to dismiss education’s role in providing a solution against such a backdrop.  At the Trust we firmly believe that widening access to the best educational opportunities can be transformative, reaping benefits both for the individual and for society as a whole.  Indeed, 80 percent of the public still agree – despite negative attitudes on opportunity overall – that the most important factors in getting on in life are ambition and education  So a priority must be to ensure the chances of getting a good education  and of accessing the opportunities that can foster and develop ambition  are themselves equitably spread across the population.   

The Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto, which we released last week, setout 25 recommendations to turbo boost this aim.   It covers everything from a need to invest in high quality community-based children’s centres, to banning unpaid internships which lock out talented students from the most competitive careers.  At every phase of education – from the early years, through schools, universities, apprenticeships and access to the workplace – there are tangible things that can be done to make a difference. 

Taken as a package, they represent an ambitious strategy for change.  But at a time when there are multiple demands on the public purse, our polling is also useful in that it tells us which area of education the public see as critical in reviving the prospects of today’s youth: building essential life skills in schools, making school admissions fairer and investing in apprenticeships.  

Our manifesto speaks directly to these priorities.  We want to see schools properly funded and incentivised to embed essential life skills in their core provision, and for head teachers to be able to offer a full suite of co-curricular activities, to compare to the best independent schools. Who goes to which schools is also at the heart of many inequalities in our system, from attainment gaps, to teacher recruitment, to social cohesion.  Making sure high performing schools are open to those from poorer homes – as a means of reducing social segregation in the system overall  is therefore crucial.   And we simply need more high quality degree level apprenticeships to realise their potential as a vehicle for opportunity (there were just 13,000 degree apprenticeship places last year, compared to 330,000 university places).   

Social Mobility has been a hot topic in the last 15 years – so much so, we have seen a backlash against it.  Back in 2003, according to our own analysis, there were just 9 mentions of the term in Parliament.  Last year there were over 400 mentions in Hansard and no less than 15 debates devoted to the subject.  While social mobility may be still struggling for air time in this general election campaign, it hasn’t been short of political advocates. 

But actions speak louder than words.  We are at a crucial inflection point in our history. Now more than ever we need to show unswerving commitment to investing in policies that will deliver genuine opportunity for all.  The consequences of not doing so, on the fabric of our society and the health of our economy, will be severe. 

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