Apprenticeships are the obvious route for exposing bright young people from less privileged backgrounds to new opportunities.
Calls to improve social mobility can sound about as exciting as being told to ‘eat more broccoli’. Yeah, yeah we know it's good for us in theory but will you please stop preaching.
And anyway, won’t the best naturally rise to the top? Look at Thomas Cromwell, Charles Dickens and Alan Sugar. All from poor backgrounds and all made something of themselves. No social engineering required.
Sorry, but I don’t swallow that argument.
In his excellent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it’s not enough to be born talented: success also requires exposure to the right opportunities at the right time.
And to that end we should all take note of social mobility tsar Alan Milburn that it is in danger of going into reverse.
According to Milburn, 1958 was the peak year for social mobility when ‘more room was created at the top’ for blue-collar workers to advance up the ladder. Since then that process has been in decline. And for the first time our children are more likely to be worse off than us.
Unpaid internships, lack of work experience opportunities, and few apprenticeships schemes are all impediments for children from working class backgrounds to accessing the same opportunities as their middle class counterparts, said Milburn at a social mobility event in Leeds this week organised by Yorkshire firm Gordons.
Milburn rightly points out that firms have a role to play in addressing the issue. Apprenticeships are the obvious route for exposing bright young people from less privileged backgrounds to new opportunities.
Benchmarking the socioeconomic background of staff will help set objectives in the same way that diversity studies have begun to address a lack of gender and ethnic minority representation. To paraphrase Acoholics Anonymous, acknowledging a problem is the first step toward getting better.
But there is no single lever for addressing this issue. Other forces need to be at work too.
Perhaps the most radical suggestion is that state provisions for wealthy pensioners be taken away, with that money used to bring back the education maintenance allowance, provide more child care to families in poverty and re-instate career services in schools.
Surely there is some justice in there too, as it’s that very baby-boomer generation that was exposed to the most opportunities. Why not expect them to give something back?
Sadly, though, that’s not vote winner.
Maybe it’s time just to take the smell of broccoli out the air when we talk about social mobility and realise that it’s incumbent on us all to do something about it.
Kathleen Hall is a Gazette reporter