The government’s plan to improve social mobility has been dealt a series of blows over the past week. New education data show that trends towards a more ‘socially mobile’ Britain are pointing in the wrong direction.
Nick Clegg launched the government’s social mobility strategy last April, promising to ‘open the doors of opportunity’ to children from disadvantaged homes as they move into adulthood. Children from poor homes are half as likely to achieve five good GCSEs as their better off peers, and they account for less than one in a hundred Oxbridge students. Clegg rightly pointed out that this is both unfair and damaging for the competitiveness of our economy.
A key way to improve social mobility is to raise the educational achievement of children from poor backgrounds, and help more of them go to university. This goal is at the core of the government’s social mobility strategy, which sets out to narrow the huge difference in results between pupils from different social class backgrounds. People with degrees on average earn 85% more than those who leave school after GCSE, and are far more likely to work in the top professions such as law and medicine.
But recent figures from a number of different sources are all pointing in the wrong direction for improving social mobility. Most strikingly, we learned this week that applications for university courses are down 12% on this time last year, largely as a result of the rise in tuition fees. Of particular concern is the dramatic decline in mature students applying to university – which has seen a fall of over a fifth since last year. Studying later in life is often the best way of enabling people to improve their lot, especially if they have been let down by their education in childhood.
Meanwhile, eyebrows are being raised at the publication of the latest school exam data. Pupils at independent schools are three times more likely to achieve an A* grade at A-level than students from comprehensive schools. Given the top universities now require most applicants to have A* grades, it doesn’t seem likely that the gulf between the number of private and state school students getting into top universities will be closing anytime soon. This situation is likely to get worse following today’s revelation that spending on sixth form students is facing bigger cuts than other areas of the education system.
Dig into the data for GCSEs, and other worrying trends emerge. If children from disadvantaged homes are to get into top universities to study for subjects like physics or engineering, then they will have to take ‘hard’ subjects at GCSE and A-level – because it is these subjects that are preferred by admissions tutors. But only 20% of pupils in comprehensive schools took individual science GCSEs last year, with the remainder taking a ‘combined science’ course that leaves them poorly prepared to study the science subjects at A-level. This in-turn means they are less likely to go to a top university, as well as reducing the all important science base of the nation. Compare this to grammar schools – where 70% of pupils are studying individual science GCSEs – and the size of the gap that has to be closed becomes clear.
Of course going to university is not the only way to improve social mobility. There is much that can be done by employers to help open doors for young people to move straight into work, or for people to study in further education colleges. But it doesn’t look like the labour market holds many answers given its current state, with youth unemployment the highest it has been for a generation and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training about to top one million.
With all the underlying indicators pointing to reduced social mobility, action needs to be taken to both stimulate jobs for young people and improve educational achievement. IPPR is calling for a job guarantee for young people who have been out of work for more than twelve months; a strengthening of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications through much greater involvement of employers ; making the pupil premium an ‘entitlement’ to guarantee that the extra cash reaches the pupils who need it, and a school accountability framework that focuses on the progression of all children, not just those achieving grades C or above. Taken together, these actions could form the basis of a proper offer for young people, and a strategy for raising social mobility with real impact.
Jonathan Clifton is Research Fellow at IPPR.
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