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There Is Something We Can Do To Improve Social Mobility Right Now


Last week, KPMG released employee data proving that businesses can increase social mobility. The statistics show that the efforts they've put in are bearing fruit. The vast majority of their workforce, 74%, now come to them with a state school education.

This begs the question: why, if big businesses can make a difference in just three years, do we still have a social mobility problem in this country? Why, according to the recent government report, State of the Nation 2016: Social Mobility in Great Britain, is social mobility getting worse, not better; especially for the current generation of young people. And why, despite decades of attention, is social mobility a problem that lies deep in the heart of UK society.

It's not like we don't understand the problem. There are countless in-depth reports on the causes and effects of a lack of social mobility - all of which make for frightening and rather upsetting reading. For example, to pick one very recent report from Deloitte, students from the least advantaged backgrounds earn, on average, nearly 10% less than their most advantaged peers six months after graduating from the same subject.

Yes, social mobility is complex. Yes, there's no silver-bullet solution. But for me, and my colleagues who work with young people, there is one huge elephant in the room: education.

One mathematical rule that always impressed me is that if you take any number, even a huge one, and multiply it by zero - the answer is always zero. Fourteen million multiplied by zero equals zero. But if you multiply it even by a very small number such as 0.001, you get 14,000. In other words (or numbers), you get a bigger number than zero - but still not a big one. As you may know, 14m is roughly the number of young people in education at any one time. I think at the moment, in many areas across the UK, education can seem to be the zero in this sum. Education will always be the 'multiplier'. But it must be a big, positive multiplier to ensure young people from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed.

To look at this another way, let's take some figures from Oxfam. According to them, one per cent of the world's population own more than the rest of us combined. Or, to put it another way, 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world's population. In my view, these horrifying figures stem largely from the fact that education worldwide is not a big enough multiplier. Not enough people are in education, engaged by education or have undergone an education. There is only one way to make this education multiplier bigger: we need investment.

To use education to tackle social mobility, we need a rising tide of investment to lift all the boats - not just the super-yachts. Our tremendous Olympic medal results in 2012 and 2016 were the result of huge investment in grassroots sports around the country. It paid a very handsome dividend. We can do the same with education, build that multiplier effect, and increase social mobility out of all proportion.

I am pleased that the UK Government is focusing on social mobility. The Prime Minister seems genuinely keen to tackle the issue for those 'Just About Managing' (JAMs), as does the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening. So we have Government commitment, and we have the sense of urgency created by the Brexit vote, which laid bare the social divide for all to see. But it's early days for this Government, and I do worry about the renewed focus on grammar schools as a cure-all.

It's clear to me that grammar schools and educational selection can never be the sole solution. Soft skills are the key in the short-term. Communication, self-motivation, team work, responsibility, problem solving, leadership, flexibility - all those skills that we adults in the working world take for granted. The skills businesses look for over and above the job qualifications; the skills that allow you to succeed in life and at work.

It's hard to do a crash course in soft skills but it's easy to embed them if you start young. So we urgently need to start soft skills education in primary schools, before the attainment gap gets too big to breach. And the good news is that there are cheap, effective ways to ensure children get the opportunity to learn soft skills. For example, we can get soft skills courses into teacher training; increase access to the world of work for young people within the curriculum, and strengthen PSHE to include an employability soft skills aspect.

In addition, we can put more emphasis on schools sharing good practice with each other; encourage the appointment of a lead teacher for financial and enterprise education in each school, tasked with ensuring that financial and enterprise education work is coordinated across year groups and embedded within all subjects where possible. And encourage schools to publicise their character-development work on their websites, so that parents and students can compare schools on this basis and choose accordingly.

Finally, we can track our own progress; develop destination data for secondary schools to track the job satisfaction of students a number of years after they've left school - that way, we're no longer working blind and reliant on data from reports produced by consulting firms - great though they are.

If we focus on soft skills, we will improve social mobility in the UK. And we will start to read reports that contain a flicker of optimism. But to get to that point we need the determination, energy and investment to do it. Let's break the continuum, up the momentum and make the quantum leap into a new world of education.

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