From education to employment


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Social mobility prospects for the current generation of school-aged young people are bleak, warns a major new report published today to mark the 25th anniversary of the Sutton Trust. It warns that future life chances for disadvantaged young people will be blighted by the pandemic as the country braces itself for a cost-of-living crisis. The researchers forecast that relative income mobility levels in the UK could fall by as much as 12% driven by stark divides in Covid learning loss in schools. This would represent a ‘step-change’ decline compared with other countries.

Social Mobility – Past, Present and Future by Andrew Eyles, Prof Lee Elliot Major and Prof Stephen Machin also highlights deepening divides in home ownership. Between 2000 and 2017, the gap in home ownership rates between those who grew up in rented accommodation compared to owner occupied homes has doubled. The report cautions that these trends, alongside the impact of the pandemic and current economic challenges, pose a threat to social mobility for future generations.

As the UK celebrates the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the review of social mobility patterns over time concludes that the dream of just doing better in life, let alone climbing the income ladder, is disappearing for generations growing up in the early 21st century. Their prospects contrast with generations born shortly after the Queen began her reign, who enjoyed a ‘golden age of upward mobility’ fuelled by expanding opportunities in society.

Today’s report reviews a range of measures to assess overall mobility trends. On some measures – such as social class and education – there have been some small improvements in recent decades. But there are still large gaps by family background in the likelihood of climbing the income ladder, ending up in a higher social class, securing a university degree, or owning a home. The review also shows that social mobility research has proliferated over the last 25 years while mentions of social mobility in the UK print media has increased exponentially, especially after the Sutton Trust’s influential study in 2005.

The researchers conclude that while specific education schemes and schools can transform young people’s lives, the education system overall has not acted as the great social leveller. They argue that long-term education policies will be needed to support the most disadvantaged pupils and improve the transition between education and work, as well as helping parents to support learning in the home.

The Sutton Trust has spent 25 years tackling access to higher education as a successful route to mobility, and it is positive to see improvements in university access over this period. However, the Trust is today calling for a stronger focus on the group who do not go to university, to offer them better routes to advancement and future success in the workplace.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The Sutton Trust’s 25th anniversary is a good moment to reflect on how the social mobility picture has developed over the past 25 years.

“This new research shows how far opportunities are still determined by background – and shockingly predicts a fall in income mobility for poorer young people driven by the impact of the pandemic and more recently the cost of living crisis. Massive government resources should be applied immediately to the millions of young people who have suffered throughout the pandemic. There is no time to lose. As a matter of fairness we have to give these young people a chance and a poorly educated and unskilled workforce is a drag on the economy.

“Looking beyond Covid, it is vital that we make the most of the talents of all young people. This should include introducing long-term education policies which support young people throughout their education and into work, along with an increase in the number of degree apprenticeships and bolstering support for those who do not go to university”.

Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, said:

“A new wave of social mobility research has transformed the field over the last 25 years, capitalising on large datasets and utilising a range of new measures to paint a far richer picture of intergenerational persistence. Measures including home ownership for example indicate declining mobility for recent generations.”

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, said:

“It is increasingly clear that stark learning losses suffered disproportionately by poorer pupils during the pandemic will leave long term scars for current generations. Unless radical action is taken, our research suggests they face worsening mobility prospects.”

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