Why addressing young people’s social mobility has never been so important
By Jo Faragher on 29 June 2021
As school leavers and graduates anticipate a second summer of disruption due to the pandemic, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the impact Covid has had on their future study and work plans. But one thing that can’t be ignored is that the effects of the virus on young people’s ability to achieve has hit those from lower socio-economic backgrounds much harder. According to the National Foundation for Educational Research, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered disproportionately because they struggled to find the technology, quiet places to study, or parental support to overcome the already difficult challenges of schooling during a pandemic.
Chief executive Carole Willis recently estimated that school children fell behind by between two and three months in reading and maths, and this was higher for those eligible for free school meals. Parents from more affluent families were often able to make up the shortfall through tutoring or easy access to laptops and tablets to work on. One estimate on university students found that those from the lowest income backgrounds lost 52% of their normal teaching hours as a result of lockdown, while those from the highest income groups suffered a smaller loss of 40%.
And last week the debate around ‘levelling up’ support for young people across all socio economic strata heated up even more, with a report by the Commons Education Committee suggesting that “white working class pupils have been badly let down by decades of neglect and muddled policy thinking”. White British pupils eligible for free school meals, it said, “persistently underperform” compared with their peers in other ethnic groups. Unsurprisingly, the Committee was accused of diverting attention away from years of reduced investment in schools and further igniting debates over racial injustice.
Disadvantage before discrimination
Raph Mokades, founder of Rare Recruitment says that disadvantage often comes before discrimination can even occur. “If you look at the proportion of people admitted into elite employment or universities who come from [social mobility] cold-spot areas, it’s not a case of discriminating so they’re not let in, their grades will mean they don’t even make the shortlist,” he explains. And while he agrees that young white working class pupils have been neglected, he points to statistics from the Institute of Race Relations that show that Black pupils are disproportionately sent to pupil referral units and that young Black Caribbean boys are almost four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school as their white counterparts.
Outreach with schools in deprived areas can help, he adds, but this needs to be joined up with the recruitment process: “Often this is disconnected, so you raise kids’ aspirations but you can’t reasonably recruit them.” One strategy could be to measure future talent pools across different axes such as academic potential, interest in the industry, social disadvantage, race and gender in order to build a truly diverse pool of potential candidates. “Then you work with them to raise their aspirations and their attainment, with one-to-one support if possible, role models or even a safe place to study,” he says. Rare Recruitment supports organisations, including many law firms, through its Contextual Recruitment System, which feeds background data about candidates into recruitment algorithms so hiring managers have a more socially (and otherwise) diverse pool of people to choose from.
Paula Kemp, head of employer engagement at the Social Mobility Commission, agrees that employers must play their part. “Youth unemployment increased faster between Spring and Autumn 2020 than at any point since the financial crisis. As we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, employers have an essential role in helping young people to access new opportunities,” she says. “When hiring, businesses should aim both to build a diverse pipeline of applicants and to remove artificial barriers to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Routes to success
Some of the ways organisations can do this are: adopting non-graduate entry routes with clear assessment criteria and offering apprenticeships as an alternative to graduate-entry roles. However, it’s important to consider how these are marketed, adds Kemp. “Our research shows that [apprenticeships] do not automatically increase socio-economic diversity unless properly targeted. Since 2017, 36% fewer people from working class backgrounds have been getting into apprenticeships, even though they could benefit from them the most.
“Where businesses recruit from is key: building relationships with Further Education colleges, schools and universities with diverse student bodies will, in turn, diversify your applicant pool,” she adds. Research has also shown that there continue to be differences in outcomes across areas for young people from low socio economic backgrounds, and employers should aim to target their outreach to young people in these social mobility ‘coldspots’ (areas highest on the UK index of multiple deprivation) or through educational establishments with high proportions of students receiving free school meals.
“It’s also vital that employers understand that the shift to remote working in professional jobs is not in itself a solution to reaching those in social mobility coldspots. It’s crucial to provide support for employees who lack digital access or their own work space. Going forward, businesses thinking about socioeconomic diversity should continue to physically locate professional roles and non-graduate opportunities in these areas.”
A report by Opinium for social mobility charity Career Ready in 2020 found that connecting young people between the ages of 15 and 18 to the world of work made a real difference to their confidence: 72% of those that have been on its work readiness programmes have been able to build a local network that will help with future career opportunities, while 95% went on to gain a higher or further education qualification, compared to 77% who had not been through the programmes. The people who had been through the scheme also had better time management, planning skills and were twice as likely to see themselves as hard working.
CEO Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa says: “There’s never been a more critical moment to invest in young people. The pandemic has cut the workplace opportunities available to less advantaged young people, reducing social mobility. The most effective way to address this issue is for employers to invest in young people via internships and mentoring. Our research shows that not only is this an effective way to boost academic and career attainment, but it’s also a great way for businesses to future proof their company by connecting with future talent from diverse backgrounds.”
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