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The Challenges of Social Mobility

Gordon Brown last week announced that a key cause he would champion in the next election was Social Mobility.  At the same time David Cameron has prodded at the performance of schools in leafy suburbs aka middle class suburbia, suggesting that aspirational mediocrity is not acceptable.  Anne McElvoy has penned an excellent synopisis of the various party positions on this in last nights  Evening Standard.

In HM Government’s recent report “Unleashing Aspirations” Pat McFadden, the Minister of State for Business, Innovation and Skills points out that 75% of judges, 70% of Finance Directors, 45% of top civil servants and, even more surprisingly, 32% of MPs were independently schooled yet only 7% of our children go to a private school.

We can tell that an election is rapidly approaching because for this now to be a battle front when the current government have had 14 years to solve the problem can make one feel a little cynical. I personally understand the challenges of social mobility having been been born and brought up in a small mining village in South Wales, near Merthyr Tydfil, where both of my great grandfathers were down the coal mines from 12 years of age until 65 and where I was the first offspring of an exceedingly large extended family to attend university.  I have been fortunate to have achieved what could be considered high levels of attainment in my career but even today, as I have attended meetings in board rooms of blue-chip companies, I still ask myself “what’s a boy from the Valleys doing here?”

You come to realise that people in the room judge you on merit and give you even greater respect when they understand your background and the realisation that you are there without any favours, help or connections. So in my personal experiences you are dealt with honorably even though you are clearly not part of the “club”- perhaps I have been fortunate as many others I know feel that not being part of the mysterious “club” ( like a private school version of the Masons) locks doors and denies access to all but the “private members”.

There is another challenge to social mobility which is not the weight of expectation, but the drag and weightier expectation of failure from the community who believe that you should never think or behave above your station.

What I have come to realise is that in our informed society it remains, more than ever, not what you know but who you know.  And whilst I respect the Governments aspirations to open up those networks by introducing mentoring and encouraging people to break through the glass ceilinged confines inhabited by those from less fortunate backgrounds, I believe the mechanisms and approaches they will use will at best help the few and not the many.  Feeling vindicated in lifting the ceiling a little for those few instead of looking at the broader challenge of grooming the best and most deserving candidates for future Leadership, Professional and Entrepeneurial roles, regardless of their backgrounds.

Equally, I understand David Cameron’s comments about the lack of high achievement in middle England, especially when we consider that we are now in a global economy and our youngsters will be competing with people who have not taken education for granted and are striving relentlessly to better themselves.

So perhaps, therefore, the focus should include a combination of the two. Then combined with dealing with another critical area we need to resolve which is the balance of supply and demand between education and industry and commerce.  With nearly 1 million young people unemployed under the age of 24 in the UK, we still continue to have mass immigration for senior jobs in the UK – not just, as Governments would suggest, for manual workers.  So this begs the question, is this because our people are not of a high enough calibre or that the qualifications they have, as a supply of skilled or qualified resource, are not in the right disciplines to match the demand in the marketplace.

The idea that ill-informed, poorly advised youngsters choose subjects for generic further education courses, without understanding the consequences and limitations of those choices in a highly competitive market is shameful.  This, more than anything, needs to be addressed if we are going to achieve the right balance and success and support for the next generation of school and college leavers.

We have lost one generation, which was unforgivable of us, but to lose another would be criminally negligent. The resolution for this does  not rest with Government and Industry alone it is all of our personal and collective social responsibilities.

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