Claire Tyler writes: Breaking through the class ceiling

Too often, success in accessing our top professions is down to the lucky accident of birth. Too often, structural inequalities mean that young children find themselves imprisoned on an inescapable path. By the age of five, there is a clear academic attainment gap between children from rich and poor families. This increases throughout school. The benefits of being born to wealthy parents do not just accrue to the talented – in fact, less-able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor youngsters. The resultant domination of our top professions like medicine, law, finance and the arts by the elite and independently educated is staggering.

The case for social mobility is not just a moral one. It also makes business sense. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2010 found that failing to improve low levels of social mobility will cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year by 2050. Some top businesses understand this, and are working hard to widen access.

More must be done to widen access to elite professions; on the part of schools, universities, businesses and the government. This is the conclusion of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility, of which I am co-Chair, and which released its report this week. Titled ‘The Class Ceiling’, the report is the culmination of a detailed inquiry, with the help of the Sutton Trust, over the last year. The inquiry looked at the causes and extent of the problem, investigated what is currently being done, and recommended tangible policy actions.

The report has six broad areas of recommendations, and can be found in full here.

Three recommendations I will focus on here speak to three gaps visible between young people from rich and poor families: in academic attainment, in life skills, and in aspiration. Children eligible for free school meals achieve grades 20-30% lower at GCSE. The odds are stacked against youngsters in underperforming schools from disadvantaged neighbourhoods achieving well at school. Universities and firms should take this into account when reviewing applicants, by using contextualised recruitment. This isn’t about penalising young people from wealthy backgrounds. It’s about taking all the relevant factors into account when evaluating a job application. If an applicant from the worst school in the country achieves the same grades as one from the best school in the country, they have proved a greater level of self-motivation and resilience – character traits valued by employers. Looking at academic attainment in context allows firms to hire applicants with the greatest potential.

Second, the gap in outcomes between children from rich and poor families can’t entirely be explained by the gap in academic attainment. Having graduated from university, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go into professional jobs and, if they do, they are likely to be paid less. Character traits such as confidence, leadership and adaptability are highly sought after, and are not innate. Encouraging and facilitating work experience, volunteering and extra-curricular activities will help to develop the soft skills in which disadvantaged young people often lag behind their more affluent peers.

Third, as the inquiry repeatedly heard, firms can only recruit those who apply. Too often talented applicants are not aware that they could enter the top professions. Half of state schools in England have not had a single pupil that has even applied for medical school. Schools, universities and employers all have a role to play in challenging assumptions and raising aspirations. This can come through good careers advice and mentoring schemes, which can be transformative for young people.

The report draws many more conclusions about the challenges involved in widening access to professions, and recommendations to overcome them. I urge you to read it in full. When we allow the lottery of birth to determine young people’s life chances we fail them. When we allow disadvantaged kids’ potential to go untapped we fail ourselves.

* Claire Tyler, Baroness Tyler of Enfield, has been in the House of Lords since 2011, taking an active role in the areas of health and social care, welfare reform, social mobility, well-being, children and family policy, machinery of government and the voluntary sector. She is the Liberal Democrat member of the Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, and co-chair of the APPG on Social Mobility

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10 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jan '17 - 11:53am

    I find it odd that the report you link to here makes only the most scant reference to fees, and by implication debts, for education.

    What to do about that is, of course, another matter. And I don’t want to start a row about tuition fees here. What I will say is that in the current climate I do think that the question of capacity to take on the risks posed by debts should not be glossed over in a discussion like this.

  • David Pocock 20th Jan '17 - 12:17am

    I’m glad to see it is being taken seriously. I feel the party has the right principles in this area; for way too long the UK has been a crony state and not a meritocracy. I guess the thing required is policy as well as principle. Is there somewhere I can read the parties current policy on this issue before I make any suggestions.

    As to the all parties findings they all seem to be reasonable ideas from the current play book of fighting inequality; my worry is as well as they are intended they seem to treat symptoms and not the causes.

  • Clearly the “academic attainment gap” is a serious issue but does this report get to the core of the problem? I think not.

    It worries about access to the “top professions” which is fine but only a very small part of the problem – like seeing only the 10% of an iceberg that’s above water and ignoring the rest. In another sighting of the same phenomenon we have periodic outbreaks of national angst about the tiny proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into Oxbridge.

    In short, it’s typically British to worry about the elite (variously defined) and ignore the very different needs of the rest; the 90% of the iceberg that’s below water. For the UK establishment out of sight is out of mind – and perhaps beyond imagining.

    I would hazard a guess that if you are a kid from a poor family in a decaying rust belt town – or a teacher of such kids or even the head of their school – then anyone talking of Oxbridge or “top professions” might as well be proposing moving to the Moon it’s so far beyond reach.

    In my experience targets that are utterly beyond reach are hugely demotivating so, unless you’re a very rare academic superstar, the message you actually hear is “don’t bother”. And, even if you are that superstar, the culture works against you; it’s very difficult to live in a parallel universe from your friends who aren’t superstars as they will certainly be demotivated.

    If my guess is roughly right then the best way to tackle structural inequalities would be to focus on the 90% by creating a ladder of opportunity to the sorts of jobs they, their parents and neighbours can relate to – i.e. typically trade skills accessed via apprenticeships. Within every trade there are degrees of difficulty, e.g. from heating engineer (highly demanding) to plumber’s assistant (not very hard) so everyone could find their own level. That would create a culture of possibilities which would change everything.

    And, coincidentally (or perhaps not) these are the very skills the economy desperately needs. Doh!

  • Peter Watson 20th Jan '17 - 9:54pm

    As a chartered chemical engineer, I’m more than a little disappointed that a report on increasing access to the “leading professions”, the “top professions”, the “most selective” professions, the “elite professions”, does not mention engineering or science (other than medicine).
    If it is because these professions are already more accessible to those from less privileged backgrounds, then perhaps there are valuable lessons to be learnt from them. If it is because our politicians do not consider scientists and engineers to be among the “UK’s professional elite”, then that is a real shame.

  • Ed Shepherd 21st Jan '17 - 8:03am

    Money is the root of this access problem. Young people from wealthy backgrounds do not have to worry about the costs of doing a degree, having to work part-time jobs whilst studying, paying the fees for compulsory expensive post-graduate courses, funding intenrships, funding pupillages/training contracts/med schools and their modern equivalents. To allow poorer people anything approaching equal opportunities, the only effective option is to make lifelong educaton free at the point of delivery. This would include restoring EMA, funding Further Education properly again, university tuition fees paid by state, post-grad and professional qualifications paid by the state, an end to un(der)paid internships and un(der)paid compulsory training courses, generous grants to pay living costs whilst studying and lots of opportunities for young people to undertake subsidised versions of the kind of activities (trips abroad, social events) that wealthy young people use to network/impress/signal-their-status-to-potential-employers. This should all be funded by a taxation system that is progressive. Sadly, not many modern politicians would have the courage to support this, even though they benefitted from such a system.

  • @Peter, as a chartered scientist who started off with a degree in chemical engineering, I feel the same. When I was at school, I was encouraged into engineering because the Engineering Council and my eventual university ran a programme to encourage women into engineering degrees.

    As it happens, my teachers were encouraging me to study medicine, and I had the grades for it, but I opted for the course that had reached out and showed me what it had to offer, and that they really did want girls to apply. I’m sure that kind of thing is effective, but you may be right that as a profession, engineering has already worked hard to encourage capable people from all backgrounds to apply.

    Medicine, which my brother did, does have a much more wealthy and establishment vibe. My brother reckons that almost everyone on his course was from a wealthier family than ours, and we weren’t poor. There’s also the aspect that all medical degrees are hard to get into and hard to complete. The level of science and engineering degrees is more variable, and it is possible for someone who successfully completes an HNC at the local college to transfer to an honours degree programme once they are sure it’s right for them.

    I know a number of medics, and almost all of them admit that the various professional colleges are deliberately snobby, and want to make it hard to gain membership, and not just for the sake of standards. And how many hospital managers come across a talented nurse and offer to fund them to complete a medical degree? It just doesn’t happen, whereas there were a number of mature students on my degree course, fully funded and supported by their organisations.

  • Simon Banks 21st Jan '17 - 9:28pm

    While I agree we should not focus so much on the “top professions” – after all, policing for example is not a top profession, I imagine, but a Chief Constable is pretty top – I find Gordon’s recommendations disappointing and limiting. Yes by all means put a lot of effort into making the difference between being an occasionally employed cleaner and being an electrician, but in any community there will be kids who have potential to go to university. I know a few who went to university from backgrounds where this was unknown and they can do very well. Of course, they will tend to move out of those communities. But if they’re discouraged by their school, they may not get the chance.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '17 - 7:25am

    Peter Watson

    If it is because these professions are already more accessible to those from less privileged backgrounds, then perhaps there are valuable lessons to be learnt from them. If it is because our politicians do not consider scientists and engineers to be among the “UK’s professional elite”, then that is a real shame.

    I think it’s more the other way round. Because Medicine is considered to be the only profession requiring a science background that is properly posh, any kid who is good at science gets pushed into medicine. Engineering is seen as where you go if you aren’t good enough to get into medicine. As an admissions tutor for an university engineering department this is what I experienced all the time. The entrance requirements for an engineering degree are way below those for a medicine degree at the same university. In fact the entrance requirements for engineering degrees are often very much below what is stated officially, because they really struggle to fill all their places, whereas medicine degrees can ask for top grades because they are overwhelmed with applicants. However, this does not mean engineering is any easier than medicine. It’s just like a free market – the cost reflects the demand.

  • Simon Banks – I’m not entirely sure what you mean but it’s clear you’ve misunderstood what I meant in my earlier comment. I talked explicitly of creating a “ladder of opportunity” and, yes, that would typically lead to trade skills.

    Too often the choice in disadvantaged communities is between “an occasionally employed cleaner” as you put it and, well, nothing much else. That has to be a recipe for discouragement and disengagement. And that must surely spread though the community, the schools especially, like a plague.

    So we most emphatically should create opportunities to train as an “electrician” (or other proper trade) thereby also creating a pathway to a secure, well paid job on which you can raise a family. It’s likely that many that go down this route will soon be earning far more than most of their university educated contemporaries so it’s not to be sneezed at. What’s not to like?

    However, that in no way precludes university for those who have the ability and interest. It might be that they go straight from school but in some cases they may discover the motivation only after gaining a trade skill and some years in work. Also, in some cases university might become possible only after a youngster has distanced themselves (in time, in finances or emotionally as the case may be) from a difficult home life. Hence, the approach I suggest would accommodate every situation flexibly and is in no way prescriptive or rigid.

    Moreover, as a matter of principle we should value everyone equally and not just those in “top professions”. The corollary is that provision for post-school education should not be largely limited to university but, in practice, that’s too often how it works with apprenticeships etc. only an afterthought and seen as second best. The British establishment appears blind to any post-school education beyond what they themselves experienced and that needs to change.

  • Peter Watson 26th Jan '17 - 7:51am

    On a related topic, a study published today by the Social Mobility Commission (I’ve not found the report yet but described here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38744122 and elsewhere) suggests that “UK professionals from working-class backgrounds are paid £6,800 less on average each year than those from more affluent families”.
    Digging a little, the authors have previously written, “We are also able to look at individual elite occupations, where we find striking variations. At one end of the scale, engineering provides a notable exemplar of meritocracy, with negligible differences in pay regardless of social background. In contrast, our results reveal the arresting scale of disadvantage experienced by the children of the working classes in law, media, medicine and finance.” (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/introducing-the-class-ceiling/)
    It appears that the obstacles for those from a poorer background when entering some of these professions persist throughout their careers, perhaps causing the problems for new entrants that Claire Tyler’s article on this page discusses. It is reassuring that these researchers consider engineering as an ‘elite occupation’, but also, perhaps there is something about such careers, those who work in these fields, those who employ them, how they are perceived, etc. that can be reproduced to improve matters elsewhere.

    P.S. Some excellent and thought-provoking ideas and suggestions in the comments from people in this thread. It might not be as exciting as Brexit but I think this is a very important subject for social and economic reasons.

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