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Young People With Working Class Background Locked Out of Top Jobs

01/07/2015 16:26 BST | Updated 30/06/2016 10:59 BST

"Young people with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs."

These were the words of Alan Milburn, a former cabinet minister, as he commented on the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's findings, which were announced on 14th June.

The Commission's research has, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that working-class graduates face huge obstacles when applying to top jobs.

What is most troubling about these findings is that, just to be in competition for a similar job with a more privileged applicant, a working-class graduate will have already faced an uphill struggle simply to win a place at university. It is especially cruel for the corporate world to construct one further barrier to working-class graduates who have often fought a lifetime of inequality.

The most obvious inequality in education comes from schooling. At the same time the clearest solution to the lack of social mobility in the UK is better access to the best education.

For the wealthiest families, 38% of independent school students go to a Russell Group university and 5% go to Oxford, according to statistics from the Department of Education. Conversely of the 80,000 students on free school meals, Teach First estimates that only 40 will go to a Russell Group institution.

How many exceptional students aren't reaching their full potential amidst those 80,000?

In response, and under government pressure, private schools are offering both academic and sporting scholarships to talented pupils who would struggle with fees. Whilst these rarely go far enough, they are a means of ensuring that some of the most gifted and able are provided opportunity. Scholarships represent a duty that private schools have to provide their resources beyond the wealthy, that they should also assist exceptional pupils who would be at risk of being overlooked.

However private schooling is not the only form of private education. A range of other supplementary options are on the market, such as private tutoring, summer schools and online education.

These may sound insignificant compared to the world of private schooling, but consider this: UK parents now spend £6 billion a year on private tutoring.

If left alone, private supplementary education has similar outcomes to private schooling; ultimately, the frustration of social mobility.

Private supplementary education is increasingly used by middle-class parents to give their children an advantage against those with less financially able parents. Of course, you cannot chastise parents for wanting the best for their children - but it is another barrier for exceptional students from backgrounds of lower means.

This is something argued by Mark Bray, an educational expert at UNESCO. He has commented that one of the main problems of private supplementary education is its "exacerbation of social inequalities".

For instance, middle-class parents often invest in private tutors to help their children enter the best state schools as an alternative to private schooling. This is having major consequences.

The Institute of Education now estimates that 70% of grammar school entrants received private tuition. More than ever, selective state schools are becoming bastions of the middle-classes as state funded independent schools. Designed to empower exceptional students from less wealthy backgrounds, these schools are now having the opposite effect.

If gifted and able students from economically poorer backgrounds are to stand any chance, we need to look at the wider private education system.

Clearly, tutors, summer schools and online education are here to stay. The advantages they offer to students are distinct and they are deeply embedded in the UK education system.

The question cannot be how to stop them. Instead, we need to think about how to widen access to so that the most academically able can obtain access to the benefits of private tuition. We need to encourage providers to show that same sense of duty that exists in many private schools.

Private education providers should be incentivised by government to offer scholarships to less financially able students. Incentives, such as tax relief or VAT exemption on fees earned from other students, would provide an economic case for private tutors to take on hitherto ignored students.

We should be encouraging a moral code of conduct amongst supplementary private education providers to ensure fee-paying parents know that their tutor or summer school has moral currency. Anyone seeking to profit from education should find little difficulty in devoting a tenth of their resources to helping those who most require their time and effort.

Of course, these ideas are bound to raise a degree of unpopularity, not least amongst hugely successful tutoring agencies. However we cannot simply ignore this issue. Private supplementary education can be a source for social good but we need to find routes to make this the norm rather than the exception.

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