Social mobility strives to ensure everyone, regardless of socio-economic privilege, receives equal opportunities throughout their education and careers. In short, where we start in life shouldn’t dictate where we finish. The benefits of having improved social mobility are clear. For example, if British businesses attained average levels of social mobility, the economy could be boosted by £170 billion (Oxera and The Sutton Trust, 2017).
Tragically, Covid-19 has disproportionately affected those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (LSEBs), specifically in terms of education and employment. The Social Mobility Commission reports that 600,000 more children now live in relative poverty, compared to 2012. The commission warns this figure could increase significantly as a result of the pandemic.
Additionally, The Centre of Economic Performance (CEP) has cautioned that Covid-19 will drive young people into a “dark age of declining social mobility”. Prior to the pandemic, those aged 25 and under had already been subjected to wage reductions, poorer living standards and fewer employment opportunities (Blanden et al 2020; Major and Machin, 2018). It’s very likely these issues will worsen during the coronavirus fallout.
2. Education, Education, Education.
Coronavirus has had a profound impact on education and the consequences of the disruption will have a serious, long-lasting effect on students from LSEBs.
Research has shown that children from wealthier backgrounds have spent 30% more time on home learning than children from LSEBs (The Institute of Fiscal Studies [IFS], 2020). Additionally, poorer students are less likely to have had access to study space, online resources and are more at risk to stresses that negatively impact on their learning (The Sutton Trust, 2020). Let’s remind ourselves that at the age of 16, only 24.7% of disadvantaged students achieve a good pass in their English and Maths GCSEs compared with 49.9% of other pupils. This demonstrates the inhibitive effect of an LSEB on someone’s education. It’s frightening to consider how the pandemic will exacerbate these figures.
Furthermore, it’s argued that school and college closures will have a ‘scarring’ effect on poorer students (CEP, 2020). The long term consequences of this scarring make for grim reading: disrupted learning will cost £350 billion in reduced lifetime earnings for current pupils, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds being hit the hardest (IFS, 2020). Clearly, the impact of school closures on disadvantaged students is a national crisis.
3. Employment and Welfare Inequality Exposed.
Major and Manchin (2021) argue that those who are experiencing the greatest difficulties during the pandemic are more likely to live in cramped conditions and suffer from underlying health issues, increasing their vulnerability to the virus. Additionally, workers from LSEBs are likelier to have key roles, putting them at greater exposure to Covid-19. This has been corroborated by data from the Office of National Statistics that shows coronavirus mortality rates have been twice as high in deprived areas than in wealthier regions.
Moreover, the pandemic has shut down entire sectors of the economy and, undoubtedly, the sectors affected the most include the hospitality and services industries. It’s widely documented that these areas of the economy disproportionately employ younger, lower-paid workers, meaning the high numbers of people from LSEBs in these sectors have been at far greater risk of losing income throughout lockdowns.
To surmise, many people from LSEBs have had their incomes reduced, face job uncertainty and are statistically at greater risk of dying from coronavirus. These tragic summations are an embarrassing reflection of the UK’s levels of socio-economic inequality.
4. Moving Forwards.
Immediate action is required to reverse the inequality caused by the pandemic. Below are a number of potential resolutions aimed to help alleviate the educational and employment crises faced by some of the poorest in our society.
– National mentoring programme: The UK has an enormous pool of diverse, world-leading, expertly-trained academics and professionals who could support students from LSEBs make up for lost lesson time. A national mentoring programme may also encourage public and private sector organisations to develop their own social mobility outreach and recruitment practices.
– Summer schools, extending the school day and student welfare: Boosting the amount of time students spend in the classroom will go some way in supporting those whose education has been derailed. However, increasing the time students spend at school must be handled sensitively to ensure the stresses of missing education are not worsened by being overwhelmed with mountains of catch-up work. Therefore, student welfare and mental health funding will be critical when schools reopen.
– Adult education, job guarantees and protected characteristics: Greater emphasis on adult training is crucial in creating a mobile society and more efficient economy. Extending the current apprenticeship levy would continue to provide an effective platform for training, learning and development. Furthermore, we should ‘re-brand’ what it means to be an apprentice and encourage people of all ages, and at any stage of their careers, to be open to the idea of training for a different career path. This could help those who have lost jobs from the pandemic find work again. Businesses should also be asked to introduce job guarantees for workers who are facing unemployment during the aftermath of the pandemic. Additionally, protected characteristics need to be updated to include LSEBs, thus creating a level-playing field during recruitment.
– Social mobility in central government: The absence of a dedicated minister and effective governing body for social mobility downplays the seriousness of the issues referenced during this discussion. This must be addressed to demonstrate that social mobility is at the heart of the government’s agenda.
These proposals will require significant financial backing and it’s imperative the Chancellor specifically targets social mobility in the next budget.
Social mobility is a problem that’s growing exponentially. This pandemic presents us with a unique opportunity to implement radical, long-term policy changes to combat the socio-economic inequality in our country and thus, make our society fairer, healthier and more prosperous. The best time to make these changes was decades ago: the next best time is now.