Why social mobility is levelling up’s defining test – Saeed Atcha

SOCIAL mobility is about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to live a decent life, regardless of what your parents did or where in the country you grew up.

How should the Government be advancing its levelling up agenda?

As such, social mobility must be right at the heart of the Government’s ambitious levelling up agenda – so where you start off in life doesn’t determine where you end up.

We stand at an important moment in this country’s history.

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The decisions taken now will affect communities up and down the country for decades to come.

Saeed Atcha MBE DL is Commissioner for Young People and Vulnerable Groups at the Social Mobility Commission.

The Government dug deep to provide billions of pounds for furlough schemes and should now dig deep again to improve social mobility and fulfil their promise to level up the country.

As a fellow young Northerner and CEO of a youth charity, I’m far too aware of the challenges that our young people face purely because of circumstances they didn’t choose – circumstances they were born into.

This is not fair and needs to change.

But there is no doubt the challenge is enormous.

How should the Government develop its levelling up policy?

Last year the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) found a postcode lottery for social mobility across England in its report The Long Shadow of Deprivation. The SMC identified that Bradford is one of the least socially mobile places in the country.

There are large pay gaps between sons from disadvantaged and more affluent families, and the median earnings at the age of 28 for a male who was on free school meals was just £9,500.

However, in neighbouring local authority. Harrogate’s disadvantaged individuals took home almost double that (£18,000).

This is not a simple story of North versus South or urban versus rural.

The same is true across the country, where deprived areas with limited opportunities are right next door to more affluent areas with greater chances.

More recently, the SMC’s State of the Nation – 2021 reported that nearly one in three children live in poverty. Even before cOVID-19, pupils who have spent 80 per cent of their schooling in poverty were a shocking 22.7 months behind non-disadvantaged pupils.

Disadvantaged young people were more likely to lose paid work during the pandemic with an 8.7 per cent drop for working class men aged 16 to 24.

When the pandemic hit only half of households earning between £6,000-£10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99 per cent of households earning over £40,000.

More than one in five (22 per cent) people do not have basic digital skills to use the internet effectively.

So, while the SMC welcomes that the UK Government has committed to ‘levelling up’ the country, it believes more clarity is needed about the agenda’s goals, funding and delivery.

At the moment plans seem largely focused on infrastructure and area-wide outcomes. But the strategy must integrate social mobility objectives – and be as much about investment in people as it is infrastructure. 

To make real differences to those from working class backgrounds the government, employers and educators need to look at the range of factors affecting life outcomes and address deeply ingrained socio-economic challenges.

Big questions need to be asked: Who benefits from available jobs? How can people move up the career ladder without moving to new areas? How we create good lives for everyone, regardless of their postcode?

This means looking at local jobs, skills (including lifelong learning), and family support, as well as transport and housing.

Building local coalitions – across business, local government and the third sector – to act collectively is absolutely crucial to the agenda’s success.

Now is the time for an overhaul of existing policies and structures to tackle inequality within place.

The SMC, with its expertise, backed up by a body of research, stands ready to contribute to bold new policy interventions to improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country.

Saeed Atcha MBE DL is Commissioner for Young People and Vulnerable Groups at the Social Mobility Commission.

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