Social mobility stagnates according to Social Mobility Commission – Is there more that can be done in primary schools to change this?

By Jordan Rehill (Research Analyst, Education and Employers)

In their sixth State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission says that social mobility has stagnated over the last four years and explores some of the reasons for this.

Gaps between the poorest students and their peers are, according to the authors, prevalent at all stages in the education system. The commission also highlights that the lack of funding especially for students as they complete compulsory education can have severe ramifications for future employment and life prospects as they progress into the world of work, apprenticeships, university or elsewhere.

Social mobility stagnates according to Social Mobility Commission – Is there more that can be done in primary schools to change this?

How does the lack of funding impact on school-to-work transitions?

Cuts and reductions to extra-curricular activities, support services and careers advice and guidance is, the report says, particularly concerning from a social mobility perspective. The authors note that the lack of adequate resources means that disadvantaged students are less likely to be able to access good careers advice and more likely to be leaving education at age 18. Moreover, the limited social networks of disadvantaged students mean they are less likely to be able to compensate for the gaps left by the lack of funding, compared to their more advantaged peers.

Our extensive research on this subject shows that social networks really do matter. Young people’s ideas about the jobs and careers they want to pursue are often moulded and restricted by the people they meet and the role models in their surroundings. Encounters with new people can help a young person to change an important element of their own thinking about themselves and their own sense of agency. These interventions expand the personal networks of young people by giving them access to larger numbers of people with more varied types of experience than would be available from family-based social networks.

Reduced curriculum breadth

The report goes on to argue that funding pressures are forcing schools to reduce the breadth of the curriculum, which is negatively impacting disadvantaged students most, as they are unable to access these provisions elsewhere in the same way their more affluent peers can. These findings align with research published last year by Education and Employers, The Edge Foundation and the National Education Union. Using survey data from some 700 secondary school teaching staff, the report asked: are students being afforded the opportunities to develop the essential skills needed for work and life while at school?

Despite the huge effort schools are investing in developing and instilling the skills and competencies young people need for work, the research highlights that current policy in England, such as the narrower curriculum and increased content and exam-focus of GCSEs and A levels, are standing in the way of young people developing the skills necessary for a smooth school-to-work transition.

Is there more that can be done in primary schools?

In 2017, Nick Chambers, CEO of the Education and Employers charity commented that reports on social mobility seldom seemed to mention primary and the importance of challenging the stereotypes children often have about the career routes and job opportunities that are available to them. In an article for Tes on 8th August 2017 he wrote:

I have for a long time been puzzled by the fact that reports and speeches on social mobility seldom mention primary schools. I started by rereading the Coalition government’s Opening doors, breaking barriers: a strategy for social mobility (2011) and then more recent reports including those by the House of Lords Select Committee (2016) and the Social Mobility Commission (2017). I failed to find any reference to the vital role that primary schools play in raising aspiration, broadening horizons and connecting children’s learning to their future lives, or to the need to tackle stereotyping that children often have about jobs.

I believe that if we are serious about improving social mobility in this country then we need to start addressing the issue when children are still at primary school.”

Despite this call to action, it appears that the vital role of primary schools in raising aspirations, broadening horizons and tackling stereotypes is still yet to be fully appreciated. While the Social Mobility Commission’s report focusses on curriculum design and Ofsted inspections at the primary level, scant attention has been paid to career-related learning at this phase. To improve social mobility, it’s vital we support primary-age children in better understanding the world they are growing up in and make sure they don’t rule out opportunities too early.

Our recent research adds to the growing body of work in arguing that if children see the opportunities their learning can give them then they are more likely to have higher and broader aspirations. Volunteers from the world of work can also play a key role in providing children with role models and tackling stereotyping around gender and ethnicity. These interventions, like the ones provided by Primary Futures, are about opening doors, showing children the vast range of possibilities open to them and helping to keep their options open for as long as possible. As well as external socio-political factors, improving social mobility relies on shifting children’s expectations about what is possible. And there is a range of attributes, skills, and behaviours that can be encouraged in this early stage of a child’s life that will leave them in the best possible position as they begin their transitions to secondary education and to future life.

Jordan Rehill

Jordan.rehill@educationandemployers.org