How employers can close the social mobility gap

Graduates celebrating

Forget about the difference between a private- and state-school education, says Tim Gibson. It’s the workplace that creates social mobility

By Tim Gibson

For the first 17 years of my life, this country had state-educated Prime Ministers. Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major attended local grammar schools – selective, certainly, but by no means benefiting from the big-money fees associated with elite independent schools.

Fast-forward two decades and the political world seems to be dominated by privately educated people. The two candidates vying to be our next PM both attended high-profile independent schools (Eton for Johnson and Charterhouse for Hunt), and recent statistics reveal that private school alumni have a disproportionate hold on top jobs such as senior judges, government ministers, diplomats and newspaper columnists.

At first sight, it is easy to claim schooling as the deciding factor in a person’s life chances. That is certainly what former education secretary Justine Greening concluded in a recent article in which she spoke of the “privilege bias [that] is hardwired into our education system.”

    "Rather than pointing to schooling as the deciding factor in social mobility, it's time to focus on the role of employers"  

But, as Greening also admitted on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, it is impossible to stop parents “wanting the best for their children” and seeking a private education if they can afford it.

After all, if you have the money and can see the doors such an educational experience opens, why wouldn’t you grasp it with both hands for your beloved offspring?

Knowing that the chances of banning public schools like Eton are slim (though that’s exactly what some pressure groups, such as Labour Against Private Schools, are calling for), and that such a move may well have a detrimental impact on our education sector as a whole, it seems as if we need to move the focus of discussion.

Rather than pointing to schooling as the deciding factor in social mobility, it’s time to focus on the role of employers in improving a person’s life chances.

 

Take John Major as a case in point. He left school at the age of 15 with just a handful of O levels to his name. After a few years of moving from job to job, he joined the banking sector and quickly enjoyed success. In his autobiography, he speaks of his work ethic once in a professional environment: he followed correspondence courses to further his career and worked with diligence and enthusiasm as his efforts were rewarded.

If employers establish a culture of opportunity, there is no reason why staff from every sort of background can’t thrive. It’s about giving people an opportunity to discover their talents, demonstrate their ability and grow.

It is striking that the jobs not dominated by privately educated people tend to be those where raw ability makes the difference between success and failure. According to a report by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, just 5pc of footballers come from an independent school, and only 16pc of university vice chancellors were privately educated. Likewise, the creative industries are seen as a wellspring of social mobility.

This all shows the importance of talent management in the workplace. Employers need to be open to candidates of every background, looking for their potential to develop within an organisation and contribute to its flourishing in the long term.

And, with as wide a talent pool as possible, they need to invest in their people, giving them opportunities to garner further qualifications or develop their experience, whatever their age.

Woman considering career options

That way, the social mobility gap will narrow. People who haven’t been able to develop a wide range of talents during their formative years in education can have the encouragement to do so in the workplace, instead. We all know that late bloomers can enjoy extraordinary success, and are often happier than those for whom success comes earlier in life.

The problem with the current debates about social mobility is that they focus too much on schooling, so that it becomes determinative of a person’s life chances. By implying that the only reason Johnson and Hunt are able to stand for the Conservative Party leadership is because of their private education, we discourage those who have ordinary backgrounds from believing they could one day be in such a position.

But consider this: of the six Prime Ministers we’ve had since I was born, only two were privately educated (David Cameron and Tony Blair). Broaden that figure to include all leaders of the two main political parties in the same period (nine in total), and you’ll find that it only adds one person to the list of private school attendees (staunch socialist Jeremy Corbyn, funnily enough).

All of which suggests that we may be overstating the impact of education on political success, as in others areas of professional life. What matters is that people of all ages and backgrounds are given the opportunity to shine, regardless of their career pathway. When employers set up the conditions in which that can happen, by investing in their people and encouraging their growth, social mobility, not privilege, will be hardwired into our society.

Published June 16, 2019

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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