From education to employment

Breaking the glass floor – social mobility and FE

What has gone wrong with social mobility? And what should we do about it? The guru or czar on social mobility in the UK is former Labour Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn. He is one of the ‘opposition’ faces the current Government likes to have inside the tent. In his last annual report to the rest of us Mr Milburn said ‘On schools we welcome the Government’s energetic focus on reform to drive social mobility and find that the gap between the poorest and the rest has narrowed at primary school and GCSE but widened at A-level. The most deprived areas still have 30% fewer good schools and get fewer good teachers than the least deprived.’

He went on to say, ‘There is much to welcome in what Government, employers, schools and universities are doing. We see considerable effort and a raft of initiatives underway. The question is whether the scale and depth of activity is enough to combat the headwinds that Britain faces if we are to move forward to become a low poverty, high mobility society. The conclusion we reach is that it is currently not.’

You will have spotted the usual lacuna. No mention at all of Colleges or FE. Yet it is colleges which receive twice as many 16 year olds for the critical ‘bridging’ period of study at level 3 than schools. And not forgetting the large number of people studying at colleges post 16 whom the schools have failed to encourage to level 2 by 16. Or those many young people who face learning difficulties and need additional skilled and compassionate support.
As in other areas of public discourse FE is missing. Yet in this area, social mobility, FE is so critical it cannot and must not be ignored. For it is in FE Colleges that we come face-to-face with the aspiration gap that lies at the very heart of our ossifying social mobility.

So why is social mobility so important? Social mobility lies at the heart of economic and social dynamism. Societies where talent is not allowed to flourish and where people from lower socio-economic groups cannot move up the income distribution tend to grow more slowly and have more negative social outcomes than those societies that have high levels of social mobility. However as my old colleague Richard Reeves, formerly Mr Clegg’s strategy advisor, and now at the Brookings Institute in Washington, says, “What goes up must also come down.”

Too often social mobility debates are characterised as win-win. Yet on closer examination we find that opportunity hoarding by those already in powerful positions to protect their children’s future prospects means a form of ‘glass floor’ is in operation. Reeves’ and colleagues’ research shows in the US 43% of those in the top two deciles of the income distribution should not be there measured by their aptitude and skill levels based on standardised tests. Yet they are. To my knowledge, this research has not been replicated in the UK, but if it were I am certain the picture would be similar. We should not be surprised by this. It is one of those examples where individual rights can clash with collective benefits. It exists as a politically unifying example of cognitive dissonance. We all believe in meritocracy except when it disadvantages our own kith and kin.

It is therefore incumbent on all of us to recognise where the engines of social mobility reside, and this is where FE institutions can do more and go further. It is now axiomatic that level 3 represents a baseline entry level to jobs that can lead to careers. So we must do something about the levels of funding per student in the FE sector. How do we expect to generate more social mobility when we invest so little in the two thirds of 16-year-olds who learn at Colleges, who receive around 40% of the funding available to university students or over 20% less than when they were at secondary school?

Colleges are brilliant at finding routes and pathways for the very many young people who have not enjoyed or flourished at schools. They locate their inner craftsperson and then unleash them in a bewildering variety of ways. If we want to encourage social mobility in the UK we need to encourage our FE institutions. I know money is tight and getting tighter so we need a compact between state, society and business. By supporting FE businesses support the social mobility on which their success so depends. Families supporting their offspring through their courses do likewise. The government should create a more level playing field in terms of funding and agency.

Indeed our public schools, so often cited by Government ministers of every hue as the best in class, could learn a thing or two about social mobility by embracing and engaging with their local FE College. How socially mobile might that prove to be?

Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege


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