21 October 2020

Apprenticeships aren’t the only option for working class kids

By Zakiy Manji

Governments have been talking a good game on social mobility for years. Back in December 2017, Justine Greening – then Education Secretary – announced her Department’s plan “to put social mobility at the heart of education policy”. She issued a “call to arms” to businesses and civil society to work with government, schools, colleges and universities to help everyone, regardless of their upbringing, achieve their potential.

The plan rightly pointed out that disadvantaged young people “do not have the same family and peer networks that can offer knowledge and experience of how to access the most rewarding careers as those from more affluent backgrounds”. However, the subsequent 12 policy recommendations offered no credible solution to this problem.

For instance, the report acknowledged that work experience is essential for getting a foot on the career ladder, and made various suggestions around apprenticeships and T-levels. But what about sectors that often demand academic qualifications, like finance and law? Was this report implying that the only good option for a working class kid is a blue collar job?

The Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 report entitled ‘Elitist Britain’ later demonstrated the lack of progress made on social mobility in top professions, since the publication of the DfE paper. The proposed fix in 2017 had done nothing to redress the inequality of access for non-privately educated graduates. The report highlighted that of the 37 sectors analysed, only in professional football were the privately educated under-represented.

Greening herself later resigned from government arguing that she could do more to help people from backgrounds like her own to succeed if she was outside Parliament. She founded the Social Mobility Pledge, a coalition of businesses and universities committed to boosting opportunity and sharing best practice. Since she left little progress has been made within DfE. It questions the viability of a government-led solution to the challenges identified in the paper.

When confronted with inequality in employment, the government can either legislate and enforce, or offer incentives. But it’s difficult to centrally design a package that’s viable across all sectors and all regions of the UK – each of which faces unique challenges. Within the broader context of Brexit and Coronavirus, there is also a lack of political will and parliamentary time to deploy the carrot or stick. So what’s the alternative?

There is significant consensus across the political spectrum on the need for social mobility. The success of Greening’s Social Mobility Pledge – currently 500 global organisations are signed up – proves that there is a genuine willingness among business and third sector leaders to make improvements. Tapping into this good will by mobilising graduates and professionals at the grassroots presents a compelling opportunity. An organisation called TipStart, of which I am a founder, is doing just this. We take professionals working in the consulting, legal, policy, financial and journalism sectors and match them with graduates from non-privileged backgrounds.

As DfE’s social mobility plan identified, family and peer networks give people from privileged backgrounds an unfair advantage. If you’re working class, the first member of your family to go to university and perhaps the first member of your family to move away from the town where you grew up, you are not going to have a phonebook of professional lawyers, consultants and bankers to dial when you want a job. But there are lots of graduates out there who do. TipStart will address this by making these kinds of contacts directly available for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and will provide a platform that allows new professional relationships – that wouldn’t have existed before – to develop. Motivated professionals understand their sector and their organisation better than central government ever can. Their interventions are likely to be more efficient and more effective – and will certainly come at a lower cost.

Progress on social mobility will ultimately come down to the actions of employers, not government, so shouldn’t we empower them to make the change?

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Zakiy Manji is a founder member of TipStart

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.