Will social mobility still be a buzzword 20 years from now?
I ask as the Social Mobility Commission's recent report Time for change: an assessment of government policies on social mobility 1997 to 2017 highlights how growing social and educational gaps have led to a souring of sentiment in society over the last 20 years.
The word 'opportunity' is peppered throughout the report - including quotes from Prime Ministers of the last 20 years who have talked about opportunity and best chances for success as a basis for ensuring fairer social policy but in practice, have made little practical change.
Understanding where opportunities are created will be the first step in helping open them up. Opportunity has long been a value of ACCA's, since 1904 when ACCA was founded as a professional body for accountants. It's a foundation on which we've been built and one which ensures we have always searched for and broken down barriers that might prevent access to the profession for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Quite rightly, the Commission's report goes to the root of the issue, to the areas where opportunity can be created. As such, education and training take centre stage. A key recommendation is for the Government to "make a commitment that every young person, including every disadvantaged young person, has the opportunity to enter a genuine career path - via an apprenticeship, a vocational course, or university."
As the report says, this needs a shift in education policy that focuses on employability. This is an important change that requires business and government to work together to identify the skills gaps that employers face day-to-day alongside the powers that government departments possess to create an education and training system that meets them.
Apprenticeships are also highlighted as a creator of opportunity in 'Time for Change'. The perception of apprenticeships as valid routes into professional careers - even within the professions ourselves - has to change. ACCA research last year found that 80% of students polled felt most apprenticeship opportunities were in construction. They are a valuable way into employment in all sectors and the apprenticeship programmes we have developed with our employers will offer a real opportunity to open up access beyond traditional graduate routes.
One route into the accountancy profession has never been enough, and ACCA has always held this view. To open up access for all students, it is important to offer a range of structured pathways that suit a range of learning styles while offering equal prospects for all to rise to the top.
To do this with the accountancy profession, ACCA's courses do not require someone to have a degree to qualify as an accountant. To further reduce the barriers to training, ACCA also offers an online course, called ACCA-X, which enables people anywhere in the world with access to the internet to study accountancy, and to get a foot on the ladder to gain further ACCA qualifications should they choose.
To have a meaningful impact it is important to asses which groups you are attempting to open up access to. The Civil Service's diversity in professional employment is widely commended in the Commission's report as exemplary and a significant flag in the sand for the government to be leading by example.
Broadening the recruitment talent pool isn't just good for government - business is feeling the benefit too. KPMG's Vice Chair and board-level diversity champion, Melanie Richards said the firm's decision to start publishing diversity targets four years ago marked a change of culture within the organisation and targeted training and internal programmes are now being launched to break down barriers for underrepresented groups.
Diversity brings new ways of thinking and working, which leads to innovation and greater productivity. While this has increasingly been understood by employers, ACCA believes more can be done to support employers to develop inclusive recruitment practices to ensure true diversity.
We also need to consider appropriate measures to track the changes that are taking place. As standard practice, large employers should be collecting data on the socio-economic diversity of their workforces, which would then encourage companies to look more closely at how they recruit new talent. It may help identify and address issues around inclusion, so that policies can be reviewed and amended if necessary.
Finally, prevention rather than cure will always prevail and ACCA has consistently recommended that improved careers advice is important for social mobility.
Young people especially need to be aware of the career options available to them at early stages in their school life. Understanding and learning about professional careers and the routes on offer from a young age can be a simple but positive step in broadening access to various professions. It can also raise aspirations amongst young people. ACCA research showed that careers knowledge is a real gap with almost one-third of 16 to 18 year olds having never received any advice at all on apprenticeships. Inclusion demands awareness, and if students are not aware of the entry routes into professional careers, then we will continue to fall at the first hurdle and employability and hiring initiatives further down the line will not have the intended impact.
ACCA was proud to be quoted in one of the first Milburn reports back 2009, when we were singled out as an example of good practice in breaking down artificial barriers to entry to the profession, and that's because we have always had an open access policy.
We know more needs to be done and through tracking and discussing issues we can begin to break down the roadblocks to create routes for success for others. And that's why government, academia, business and the public sector need to align views and best practice. It's a long-term goal and I hope that by 2037 the Commission will be writing about the Social Mobility Revolution.