Social mobility: Breaking down the barriers

Written by: Julia Shervington | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Progress on social mobility is slow, with the top professions still being dominated by the rich and the privately educated. Julia Shervington discusses how we might change this and empower students to overcome the barriers they face

As students enter a new academic year it is inevitable that those coming to the end of their secondary education will be starting to think about what comes next.

Some may be fortunate enough to already have a clear idea of what career they want to pursue – they will have performed well at GCSE, selected facilitating A level subjects and be on track to receive offers to study a relevant degree or higher level Apprenticeship.

However, Which? University research (January 2016) found that 28 per cent of university applicants wished they had chosen different A level subjects, while 41 per cent wished they had thought more about what subjects might help them get into university.

Unfortunately, therefore, for a large proportion of students who gave little or no thought to how the
A levels they selected would affect their future options this creates a hurdle to be surmounted. And although university is not the only route into the professions, some employers are increasingly looking for a Master’s in addition to a first degree.

But getting into university is only half the battle. The shocking evidence is that your likelihood of entering the professions, and how much you earn, is more dependent on your background than your qualifications. It has been widely reported that more than half of top doctors, FTSE 100 chief executives, senior journalists and 70 per cent of High Court judges went to private school and yet only seven per cent of the population are educated there.

In addition, the 10 per cent highest earning male graduates from richer backgrounds earned about
20 per cent more than the 10 per cent highest earners from relatively poorer backgrounds. Research carried out by Rare Recruitment demonstrated just how skewed the system is.

Its report found that 30 per cent of sixth form students at the top 10 schools (nine independent and one grammar) had applied for the most prestigious graduate schemes at law firms, management consultancies, banks and leading companies, compared to just 0.3 per cent of students at the bottom 10 per cent of schools. And research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters demonstrates that while 51 per cent of students are the first generation to graduate, they accounted for only 37 per cent of applicants and 33 per cent of those hired.

This means that students with the talent and skills to be leaders in their chosen profession aren’t getting the opportunity to do so. Not only is this morally wrong and an injustice for the students, their families and their communities, but it also has a huge impact on the economy.

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s – The Class Ceiling: Increasing access to the leading professions (January 2017) – found that the lack of improvement in social mobility will cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year by 2050. They also found that firms who do embrace diversity (gender, race and socio-economic background) have 45 per cent more market share. Supporting social mobility will benefit us all.

So what can we – as parents, as teachers, as careers advisors, as employers and as role models – do to overcome this travesty? The simple answer is work together in a co-ordinated programme of interventions from the classroom to the boardroom, from GCSEs to CEO.

This requires effort, but working collaboratively we (and here I’m talking about third sector organisations like Villiers Park Educational Trust where I work) along with schools, universities, organisations and the young people themselves all have a role to play. As professionals we need to empower young people to develop their academic and personal skills and provide them with access to networks.

We need to start by empowering students to excel at GCSE, encouraging them to continue their education by taking appropriate and facilitating A levels and by providing advice about career options to inform their decisions on post-18 education and training. We also need to help them raise their aspirations and overcome their misconceptions about certain professions being a “glass slipper” that only fits one type of person, the more affluent (see The Glass Slipper: “Incorporating” occupational identity in management studies, Lee Ashcraft, University of Colorado Boulder).

We need to help students demonstrate their passion for, and in-depth knowledge of, a subject. Universities look for evidence of these “super-curricular” activities. For example, visiting art galleries or museums, attending subject-related residential courses or entering national competitions.

We also need to encourage personal development through “extra-curricular” activities where students can develop leadership, communication, organisation and interpersonal skills as well as build confidence. This would not only provide evidence in personal statements, CVs and interviews that the student has the skills to thrive, but it will also give them the ability to thrive in the interview itself.

To cash-strapped schools this may seem an impossible ask, but these activities can be set up so that the students do the work, with just a small amount of adult oversight. In addition they do not just benefit the participants, the schools also benefit through more engaged and proactive students, who set themselves apart as independent learners, defying the lazy, “spoon-fed” label increasingly levelled at this generation.

Projects can be included as part of the strategic improvement or development planning process and during Ofsted visits they can be used as an example of stretching and challenging pupils and preparing them for higher education.

As Josh Hardie, the deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said in the recent report Helping the UK Thrive (July 2017): “Across the country there are brilliant schools and colleges helping young people succeed, both academically and in terms of the attitudes and behaviours they need to succeed in later life. Business can and must do more to ensure that someone’s postcode or background does not define their life chances.”

To do this we need to educate employers about the benefits of diversifying their workforce, to help them look beyond background, and understand that experience, accent and appearance are related to the ability to pay for them and not the ability to succeed.

We also need to provide students with networks offering information on different careers, how to access them, availability of internships, work experience and crucially provide the ability to undertake these often unpaid but crucial opportunities.

This is important because the CBI report found that 59 per cent of employers believed that “relevant work experience or having taken up a placement related to the sector are important advantages for graduates”.

The report also found that 90 per cent of employers focus on the attitudes and aptitudes that will enable graduates to be effective in the workplace, with 32 per cent of employers dissatisfied with graduates’ attitudes and behaviours of self-management and resilience.

There is a lot of good work being done by all key stakeholders. However, there is a long way to go and no quick solutions.

One thing is for certain, random interventions won’t work – we need a joined up co-ordinated approach from the classroom to the boardroom. To achieve this we must all fulfil our responsibilities and make this work a part of our intrinsic values, so that, as I heard someone say recently, “we’re not having these same conversations in 30 years’ time”.

  • Julia Shervington is communications manager of the Villiers Park Educational Trust. Villiers Park is a charity that helps able young people to develop a passion for learning and the study and life skills to ensure they reach their full academic potential. It is committed to fair access – ensuring able students from less advantaged backgrounds gain places at leading universities and thrive once there.

Further information

The Class Ceiling: Increasing access to the leading professions, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, January 2017:


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