I recently attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility's launch of their Character and Resilience Manifesto which argues that 'personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the [social mobility] chain.' Yet again, I found myself thinking that while it is encouraging that social mobility is an issue that is still being taken seriously, the key themes - the impact of parenting and early years, the correct balance of academic and extra-curricular activities in the curriculum, the role of employers - remain stubbornly intractable, as do the underlying inequalities they seek to tackle. And even where we do see improvements, they are not leading to the outcomes for young people we would like to see. A recent study by the Institute of Education, for example, found that while disadvantaged pupils today are more likely to reach the expected educational levels than in the 1960s, their likelihood of being among the high achievers in their peer groups has remained consistently low. Despite awareness of the problem and desperate need for change, it seems that young people's life chances remain stubbornly tied to their background and socio-economic status.
The IOE's report focused its attention on the lack of guidance provided at GCSE and A-Level regarding subject choice. Given the weight that both universities and employers place on the 'right' subjects and grades, it is important that young people from all backgrounds are given the correct guidance when choosing them. The report also singled out the need for more guidance about the requirements of elite universities and firms, to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their full potential.
For me advice and guidance, character and resilience, it's all pointing to the same issue. For a whole host of usually interlinked reasons some young people are simply better equipped to navigate the choices and pathways of education and work than others. This is something the charity I run, Brightside, works to remedy, offering online mentoring to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they can bridge that 'social capital' gap, and get advice, insight, contacts and support from someone who has been through the process before.
For some young people from less privileged backgrounds, who lack not talent but role models and the informal networks of advice and support others take for granted, the world of higher education and professional careers can seem both mystifying and intimidating: something for people 'not like me'. But putting them in contact with someone who can answer all their questions and talk through their own experiences can build the very character and resilience the APPG talks about - as well as the practical skills they need - to make university and the professions seem like achievable aims. For the social mobility problems this country faces to be quashed, we need to get to a place where young people from any background not only know all of the options that are open to them but also feel that they are within their reach.
The discussion at the Character and Resilience Manifesto launch focused largely, and understandably, on some big, structural issues - improving parenting, rebalancing education - and these are vital but very long term goals. In the meantime mentoring is a scalable and affordable approach to supporting young people right now with the information and support they need today to make a difference to their lives tomorrow.