Social mobility

Regional self-empowerment is possible. We know how…

We must look past lazy myths of north-south divide and American dream to remodel social mobility around regional needs, say Michael Barber and Lee Elliott Major

We must look past lazy myths of north-south divide and American dream to remodel social mobility around regional needs, say Michael Barber and Lee Elliott Major

25 Feb 2023, 5:00

The south-west’s sunny shores and lush green landscapes hide a harsh truth. In the places perceived by many of us as idyllic holiday destinations, the dream of leading a decent life, let alone climbing the social ladder, is all but disappearing for many young people. In national debates about levelling up, the peninsula’s poor social mobility prospects have become the uncomfortable truth that no-one wants to speak of.

Recent research by the University of Exeter revealed young lives blighted by barriers to opportunity: students in Somerset having to navigate a 12-hour+ round trip to their nearest further education college; pupils in Devon unable to afford the taxi or the kit to take part in after-school sports training sessions; teenagers in Cornwall resigned to thinking that university was not meant for them, irrespective of how good their school grades were.

The latest statistics paint their own bleak picture. The south-west remains rooted at the bottom of the country when it comes to higher education participation rates. Just 43.1 per cent of 15-year-olds had attended a university or college by 2020-21 according to the Department for Education, compared with 59.3 per cent of 15-year-olds in London. Absence rates at schools meanwhile are unacceptably high. And over recent decades the region has fallen far behind London and the south-east in the managerial and professional jobs on offer.

Catapulting a few academically talented teenagers from poorer backgrounds into selective universities and elite careers is work of national importance. But we view social mobility in a much broader sense. The challenge for today’s young generations is that they are less likely to lead decent lives compared with their parents. Just affording to live in the region, earning a wage that can pay the bills, has increasingly become the exception not the rule.

We need a new model of social mobility that develops all talents, not just academic but also vocational and creative – and creates opportunities in the south-west and other regions, not just in London and the south-east. This is about giving young people opportunities to lead fulfilling lives in their own communities. It is as much about equipping them with skills through apprenticeships and jobs as it is accessing elite education.

We will ensure our voice is heard in Whitehall

Our South-West Social Mobility Commission has uncovered a burning desire across the region to address current inequities. It brings together leaders from education, industry and the public services willing to do all they can to create a fairer future. Its work will be defined by three broad aims. 

Generational change requires a decades-long vision, but we will publish a set of indicators to hold the region to account on progress towards our ambitious goals. We believe for example that it isn’t too much to ask for every pupil to leave school with the basic skills to get on in life, or that every major employer offers high quality apprenticeships and universal training. We think that a performance measure for multi-academy trusts is how well they are doing for disadvantaged pupils.

We will also harness the best ideas from elsewhere. We’ve already seen great promise in trials of undergraduate tutors helping local pupils with basic literacy in Exeter and Plymouth, and a scheme enabling schools to serve as community hubs in their localities. The region is also ideally placed to pioneer the government’s emerging reforms for improving basic skills.

Finally, we will ensure our voice is heard in Whitehall. Too often, national debates fall into the lazy myth of a simplistic north-south divide in opportunities. We will demonstrate how regional self-empowerment can be made possible.

Many people conjure up the notion of the American dream when they think of social mobility – that anyone can climb the social ladder, leave where they come from and make it into society’s upper echelons. Our dream for the southwest is far simpler: We want to create a fairer place in which young people enjoy a decent chance of succeeding in life, whatever city, coastal town or village they happen to come from. That would be good for this most beautiful of places, and the country as a whole.

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  1. paul hamed

    A quick read. The fetish of University – a symptom of the destruction of the productive base of the UK – is interesting. A recent study showed that graduates are more likey to favour economic liberalism and social liberalism. That ‘economic liberalism’ is now the British disease – Sorry, Hoover- makes this interesting.

    It is possible for the regions to gain power….why?…the very Empire/managers (SOAS, OxBridge), never were given the wake up to reality when empire collapsed. Snuggling under the wing of Uncle Sam enabled this.

    The graduate class are deluded and they have power within Westminster, the regions can take advantage of their delusions and rise.
    I have some ideas that I want to discuss with people in the North East, but I am open for dicussion if people are interested.

    I have researched BoE documents and understand what happened to this country.
    ‘The Secondary Banking Crisis, 1973-75’ – Margaret Reid is essential reading for the UK context.
    LSE and all other such ‘elite’ institutions are a waste of space. Need that quote from ex-CIA director William Colby…’elitist, in-bred…..’.