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History & CommunityAddressing Social Mobility in the South West

Addressing Social Mobility in the South West

In March 2023, the newly established South West Social Mobility Commission held its inaugural meeting. The initiative is the brainchild of Lee Elliot Major, the country’s first Professor of Social Mobility, whose ground-breaking report last year advocated for the creation of the Commission to address the region’s low social mobility.
Chair of the Commission is Sir Michael Barber, an educationalist and world-renowned expert on government delivery. Appropriately, Michael has a number of local connections to the South West that make him suitable for the role. He tells Seth ‘I’ve lived here since 2010, so thirteen years I’ve lived in North Devon—that’s a big connection; I’m Chairman of Somerset County Cricket Club, which is another connection; and I’m Chancellor of Exeter University.’
Michael brings to the Commission a wealth of experience in government and public service and has seen varying approaches towards social mobility in the last twenty years. From 1997 to 2005, he served in the Blair administration and he tells Seth that, at that time, ‘I think there was a lot of concern and focus on improving the education, certainly of children from low-income families. We improved the quality of literacy and numeracy teaching in primary schools, and we could see, in the data, progress.’ He continues ‘we became more rigorous in dealing with underperforming schools, which tended to be in areas of low social mobility. That made some progress.’ When asked about the approach taken by the Conservative administration since 2010, Barber was honest: ‘Michael Gove did do some good reforms… however, austerity has an effect. The pandemic has had a very bad effect on low-income children and the government is currently trying to address that through catch-up programmes and so on. But there’s a long way to go’.
In his view, the work of The Sutton Trust—an educational charity established in 1997 and once the home of former Chief Executive, Lee Elliot Major—has been highly influential in shaping approaches to social mobility. Michael asserts that the charity’s impact has been ‘not just on any particular party, but upon the political class generally.’ Additionally, he believes that the professions of banking, law, education, and healthcare are more aware now of social mobility than twenty years ago. What he’s observed, he informs Seth, is ‘often more like a movement, a sense that we as a society should be concerned about that.’
In the South West, Michael believes the region’s low social mobility originates with three factors. The first is ‘low paid, low skilled jobs in agriculture and tourism’. He argues that, although these jobs are plentiful there is no guarantee of progression. Secondly, ‘because of that traditional economy based around tourism and agriculture, too often the schools have relatively low expectations and so they don’t demand enough from their students’. This correlates with the statistic that, in 2019 only 40% of disadvantaged students in the South West attained a standard pass in GCSE English or Maths. Thirdly, Michael says ‘I think we’ve had mixed contributions from the further and higher education system.’ Despite this, he’s adamant that today, ‘we’re in a really strong position.’
A combination of recent educational and economic developments has stimulated a more optimistic outlook on the region’s prospects. Michael highlights a raft of Good to Outstanding Ofsted reports at colleges, such as Exeter and Petroc. Higher Education providers, such as Exeter and Plymouth are also ‘really fired up’ about social mobility. Additionally, the region’s economy is changing rapidly. Michael is convinced that ‘we’re going to see a growth in the number of high skilled jobs’ in what he terms the “New Economy”, which encompasses the technology, creative, and green industries. This is aided, in his view, by the most recent tranche of the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund, with nearly £180 million allocated to the South West.
The new South West Social Mobility Commission will play an integral role in scrutinising the work of twelve Commissioners. Representatives include Lisa Roberts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter; Paul Crawford, CEO of Live West; and Brendan Staniforth, Strategic Delivery Director at Babcock International. In his role as Chair, Michael says ‘I’ll be challenging all of them to say, “so in your firm, in your local authority, in your bit of the health service, what are you going to do about it?” We won’t just sit around and pontificate. We will be trying to make sure that people on the Commission and far beyond do something.’ Goals will be set by the Commission for each five-year period between now and 2050 to ensure significant progress is made.
While the new Commission is partly about policies, research and guidance, it is also concerned with initiating meaningful change. This is a view Michael is passionate about: ‘The biggest single thing we can do is raise the aspirations of families, children, parents and schools not to believe that simply sort of ticking over in school and getting a relatively low paid job in agricultural tourism—that’s not the future, and it’s not social mobility. So, raising expectations will be crucial.’
Outside of the Commission, Michael is concurrently advising the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Education Secretary on the UK Government’s skills reform programme. The programme involves ‘massively improving the quality of careers advice and advice about roots into the future. So, better advice about apprenticeships, about degree apprenticeships, about university degrees, and better advice about which career directions are likely to be in the “New Economy”, and which ones are left over from the old economy’. The programme follows a sharp growth in the number of job coaches based in job centres over the last few years.
Behind the push for skills reform is the desire to redress the inequities faced particularly by those from white working-class communities. Michael encapsulates the matter, saying ‘I think the problem in some parts of the country has been that there’s a certain generation that expected the world to be as it was in the 20th Century, and then when they got there, it wasn’t.’ He infers ‘that leads to feeling negative, feeling left behind, sometimes feeling cynical, sometimes feeling bitter. For people who’ve reached adulthood and feel like that, they need really good one-to-one advice.’ It is his view that, beyond the classroom, these disadvantaged communities should ‘interact with some part of the state to try and unlock some sense of aspiration and get people to put their despair behind them… hope is really important in this.’

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