‘Britain is in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever growing-division’. So said Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, who chose not to mince his words when talking about the state of social mobility in 2017.
In its State of the Nation report the Commission found a growing divide between London and the rest of the country, leading to a deeply divided nation.
Places like Tower Hamlets and Hackney in the capital are still home to some of the highest levels of poverty in the country. But the transformation of education along with the opportunities available in the capital work together to exert a ‘push’ and a ‘pull’ on achievement. As a result disadvantaged young people in London are now more likely to get good grades, go to university or get a better paid job.
It is not inner cities, but rural and coastal towns and former industrial communities that are the new social mobility cold spots. It is now in places like Carlisle, Corby and Weymouth where children born into poverty have the least chances of escaping it.
Ignoring this geographical disparity will only lead to an increasingly divided society, with the serious consequences for cohesion that entails. Alan Milburn highlighted that of the 65 ‘social mobility cold spots’ his Commission identified, all but five voted ‘leave’ in the EU referendum. They haven’t felt the benefits of some of our national projects. The geographical inequality of opportunity, he said, helps explain an increasingly polarised politics and the feeling of many those that live in these communities that they have been ‘left behind’.
But the Commission did identify the steps we can take to improve the chances of young people in these social mobility cold spots. In particular, on the ‘push’ side of the equation, they highlighted the importance of getting great teachers into the schools that need them the most. As a charity that recruits and trains teachers to work in these communities, we couldn’t agree more. Schools do not stand alone in tackling disadvantage, but they can have a transformative effect on their communities.
We need more people to come forward and take on the challenge of a career in teaching and, most importantly, we need them to work and stay in the communities that need them most.
Over the last few years Teach First have placed and retained more and more teachers into coastal and rural areas as the social mobility challenges of Britain have changed.
We started 15 years ago as a charity recruiting and training teachers to work in some of the most deprived inner-London schools. But over the last decade, we have placed thousands of teachers in schools serving low-income communities in places like Hastings, Bradford and Blackpool - all areas today highlighted as social mobility cold spots.
From being ‘on the front line’ we have learnt what a lack of social mobility really means for children in these areas. It’s not that the poverty in these areas is necessarily more severe, but that young people lack the wider opportunities - the ‘pull’ factor - to reach their full potential and rise out of this poverty. They lack the industry, businesses, transport and infrastructure on their doorstep.
One thing our teachers always tell us is that these children absolutely do not lack ambition. They have the same dreams and aspirations as children in the most affluent and socially mobile areas. What they lack is the opportunity to realise those ambitions.
So we support the Commission’s recommendations that government, councils, schools and businesses redouble their efforts to tackle this problem and ensure all young people – wherever they are born – get a fair chance in life.
This means we need to support them with things like careers advice, work experience and access to higher-education, so they can navigate the world of work and gain the skills they will need in the future. But most of all, it means we need to get even more brilliant individuals into the teaching profession and into the schools that need them the most.
Teaching is one of the most rewarding careers out there. Very few other professions allow you to directly have such a transformative impact on the lives of young people. I’d encourage anyone – whether you’re looking for a graduate job or thinking about a change in career – to take up the challenge of teaching.
Russell Hobby is Chief Executive of education charity Teach First