The Social Mobility Commission has published its assessment into 20 years of government policy on social mobility and it makes for depressing reading.
For disadvantaged young people and those of us who work with them to improve their prospects, it is particularly brutal. Incomes are stubbornly low, educational attainment unequal and unemployment disproportionately high. Even brief falls in youth unemployment which might look like chinks of light, are not more young people in work but arise as a result of requiring young people to stay in education until 18.
Vocational education, an easy access point to social mobility, has been desperately under-funded compared with A levels. Further education colleges which should be the engines of social mobility, providing young people with the opportunity to re-visit their education, are failing young people with college students 20% less likely to enter higher education.
The report also points out that even high-attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to choose vocational routes. This points to poor careers advice by schools as a central thread undermining social mobility. The lack of funding and focus on careers education underpins the failure to raise young people’s aspirations.
Just as education routes chosen by disadvantaged young people are flawed so is the labour market. The report tells us that since 2008 young people’s wages have fallen to below 1997 levels and under 24 year olds are now more likely to be poor than any other group, including pensioners.
Government policy is short term, conflicting in nature and leads to unintended consequences for social mobility. For example, changes to education over the past two decades have been enormous and almost constant, not allowing any time to gauge the impact before more changes were introduced. Likewise, apprenticeships could be a golden opportunity for young people but the focus on meeting targets (3 million by 2020), has often sacrificed quality for quantity, and the numbers of young people undertaking them is falling, whilst for over 25s it’s rapidly increasing.
It is clear what is required. A comprehensive, joined up plan that operates across government with the single aim of improving social mobility. Resources need to support the plan and all spending decisions need to underpin this principle.
At NYA we’ve been calling for something similar – a cross-government vision for young people – for some time. This plan would champion young people and pull together youth policy across the wide range of government departments, DCMS, DfE, BIS, DWP into a coherent whole. It would ensure continuity and underpin social mobility by carrying with it a ‘duty’, similar to the public sector equality duty which requires consideration of the impact of policies and action to be taken if they widen inequality.