It's no secret that the UK is struggling with social mobility. We see it played out in the news on an almost daily basis. Child poverty is increasing and more families are struggling to make ends meet.
Social mobility plays into several different themes, including educational equality, child poverty and unemployment levels. Official unemployment figures have been falling since they peaked in 2011 at 8.5%, although it's unclear whether other external factors have contributed to this, such as a rise in part time work. On top of that, youth unemployment remains significantly higher than the headline rate at 13.7%. Educational equality is a hot topic for debate, with the proposed return of grammar schools; for some, bastions of social immobility; for others, a step upwards to university that otherwise wouldn't or couldn't have been taken.
Recent research by the IFS projecting a 50% increase in relative child poverty from 2014-15 to 2020-21. This is huge, and unacceptable. The results made national news, but with headlines devoted to Brexit and the war against Isis, it's easy to see how it gets lost.
What is the most frustrating for me is the direct impact a lack of social mobility has on future generations. Poverty and inequality have an effect on a child's wellbeing, aspirations and future achievements, as well as quality and length of life. This cycle is difficult to break, yet this issue has been well-documented over the years. So why is it taking so long to find a solution? It is particularly pertinent that we tackle this in the wake of the Brexit vote. Individual opinions aside, any negative impact will hit the younger generation the hardest. They are already more susceptible to economic changes; youth unemployment levels, consistently higher than the mainline rate, and the wage scarring effect that they can have on a future career are testament to that.
At the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, announced ten 'social mobility hotspots' across the country, and pointed to City Year as one of the organisations the government will work with on this issue. Each area will receive funding for teacher support and school improvements, along with careers advice, mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities.
This is a positive step towards tackling social immobility, but more needs to be done. We need to encourage more collaboration between schools, charities and businesses, and give young people themselves the opportunity to give back to their community as part of that mix.
Society tends to assume that the younger generation is ill-equipped to build a successful society, or that only those seen as a 'problem' are relevant to the issue of social mobility. I don't believe that at all.
Engaging young people to be part of the solution is a tactic I feel has been overlooked. Generation Z is more socially engaged than previous ones; they've grown up amid economic uncertainty and seen first hand how this can affect communities. They face higher tuition costs, lower wages and fewer prospects, and as a result they're more likely to want to do something for the greater good than baby boomers or millennials.
We need to capture this. We need to empower young people to be the guardians of social mobility; taking them back into the classroom to give one-to-one support, teacher assistance and role modelling. This engagement should start in primary school and continue throughout education. Schools are part of a wider community, and as such this kind of intervention benefits everyone, not just the pupils and their teachers.
This is where City Year has its greatest impact. Our young volunteers support children who are struggling to meet their full potential for various reasons; they may have English as a second language, behavioural challenges or just not see the point of school.
Our volunteers find out what makes them tick, what they like and dislike, and how they learn best. For example, getting a young boy engaged in reading through books about his passion for boxing, or as one child told me 'making playtime fair' which made such a difference to her enjoyment of school.
Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure to achieve good exam results, and our young people can help them by becoming mentors, role models and leaders to the children they teach, getting them ready to learn and making the most of what their teachers and school have to offer.
It's clear to me that as children respond positively to this 'near peer' support, a key part of the solution to tackling social mobility is giving young people the opportunity to support each other. We need investment from schools, parents and the government too, but I believe that young people can also play their part in creating the broader change we so badly need.
As the African proverb tells us, 'it takes a village to raise a child'. We need to give more young people the skills and opportunities to be a part of that village, and empower them to inspire more than just a generation - they could create an entire social movement. I'm inviting everyone to support our future generations to make this happen today.
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