Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, closed his speech at last week’s Bridge Group conference almost in tears. He had started off by looking at the high levels of inequality in the UK, pointing out that alongside our low levels of public spending compared to other similar countries internationally, this inequality is having an impact on both our educational system and health outcomes.
From there, he took us to the real-world impact of the issue, ending on several recent deaths of homeless people in his home city, Oxford. His composure broke down as he told us that the previous month, when visiting his former school, he had to tell students that two former pupils had died homeless on the streets of Oxford.
The emotion on show set me back slightly, and I had to really question myself – why was this making me feel uncomfortable? When you’re reading about these issues every day, it’s all too easy to remove yourself from the emotion of it. Dorling’s speech served as an important reminder to myself and everyone present that research is not just words and numbers on a page. Work on inequality and social mobility is about real people.
Indeed, several speakers tried to grapple with how we can move past the facts and figures we produce to effectively get our messages out to the wider public. Speakers largely agreed that currently not enough is being done to really change attitudes. Sam Friedman, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, said “Although inequality is rising, so too is people’s belief that we live in a meritocracy.”
Emran Mian from the Department of Education put it well when he pointed out that “people in a room like this are quite unrepresentative in an important way, we’re motivated by statistics and quantitative evidence. But most people are motivated by stories or knowing in detail about a place. Those are the things that motivate us and cause changes in behavior. How much do news headlines on think tank reports make any difference to people’s motivation?”
Poly Toynbee, journalist and chair of one of the day’s sessions, told us that while “it’s easy to despair, it’s important to look for what can actually be done.” And there were many suggestions throughout the day of practical steps which can be taken to improve social mobility and lower educational inequality. In Toynbee’s session, we heard about the importance of professional development opportunities for teachers, and the need for a greater focus on vocational routes into the workplace.
Later, the conference moved onto looking at higher education. Vikki Boliver, Professor of Sociology at Durham University, made a strong case for the greater use of contextual admissions in universities, an issue which is supported by the Sutton Trust. She said that “In the media there is still too much rhetoric about ‘letting them in’ when speaking about disadvantaged students, but they deserve their places at these institutions.” In the workplace President of the Law Society, Christina Blacklaws, made the case for banning unpaid internships, another key Sutton Trust policy. There was also a discussion around the importance of looking not only at an individual’s entry into the world of work, but also at potential barriers to their progression, with conversation touching on the work Sam Friedman has done on this issue in his recently released book Class Ceilings.
At the end of the day, KPMG’s Melanie Richards highlighted her hope that businesses would continue to look at this issue, and her conviction was that there is a strong business case for change. Summing up the day’s discussions nicely, Melanie said “talent is the lifeblood of our organisations, we can’t afford to give it away.” While there is still much more to be done, throughout the day speakers were hopeful that change is possible.
Learn more about the Bridge Group, a non-profit consultancy that uses research as a catalyst for evidence-based social change.