Last week, the House of Lords’ Social Mobility Committee published its report ‘Overlooked and Left Behind’. The report is worth a look because it covers a familiar subject in a new way.
When politicians, academics and the media talk about social mobility, they generally focus on the extent to which people from poor backgrounds can join the elite. Education secretaries, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission have all tracked in detail the barriers which make it harder for children from poor families to enter selective universities and get the best paying jobs. This is a really important topic. The failure to ensure that the most talented individuals – whatever their backgrounds – get the best jobs is a massive shortcoming in our education system. But it is not the only issue that matters, nor is the academic route the be-all and end-all of social mobility.
The House of Lords enquiry took a different tack. Over a period of six months, the committee gathered a wealth of evidence on the routes from school to work for young people who don't take the academic route. 47% of 16 and 17-year-olds are studying A Levels but 53% are doing something else. For all the attention given to university and apprenticeships, 38% of 18-year-olds enter higher education and 10% are on apprenticeships. The majority (52%) are on different tracks and face a number of obstacles on their way into work: a confusing set of qualifications, poor careers advice from a university-obsessed education system, out-dated employer recruitment practices, people in authority distracted and also confused by frequent policy change. These are familiar issues to those working in colleges.
The House of Lords committee's contribution to the debate is to assemble the evidence in one place and to make a number of pragmatic recommendations (on pages 108 and 109) about some ways forward. They identify the need for much better analysis of transitions into work combined with a shake-up of careers advice and Cabinet level attention on the transitions for young people.
On their own, these proposals may not be enough. Decades of class prejudice, big changes in the job market and years of public spending cuts make it impossible to change the English education system overnight. But the committee's report is a good signpost for the sort of thinking that is desperately needed.
Julian Gravatt is the Assistant Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.