The Opportunity Gap: Why are we still failing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Posted On: 
28th September 2018

At a Labour conference fringe event, Lucy Powell MP joined a panel of experts to discuss why social mobility seems to have stalled, and what we can do about it.


Britain’s implicit social contract is that those who work hard will have a fair chance to get on. Yet, since the 1980s the upward trend has reversed, and it now has some of the lowest levels of social mobility among advanced economies.

Why social mobility is in such a state and how to address it, was the topic of the packed fringe event at Labour conference on Tuesday, hosted by KPMG and IPPR.

Speaking on the panel, Lucy Powell – Labour MP and member of the Education Select Committee – said that when it comes to social mobility, the issue of Brexit ‘looms large’ for two reasons.

“Firstly, we got Brexit because so many in our country felt there wasn’t that same social and economic progress for them and their families that they maybe once felt there was.”

“The second reason is that Brexit is sucking the life out of every other aspect of public policy. No matter what you think of Brexit, that opportunity cost of years of stagnation in public policy is going to have an even worse impact on the pressing issues of today.”

Devolution was an important part of tackling the core issues, such as education, as they are best addressed through local networks, said Powell.

“Whitehall should set the standards, but you need councillors, mayors, local businesses, and others across the country pulling together to really transform lives of young people.”

The MP was joined by a panel of experts consisting of: Professor Karen Rowlingson from Birmingham University, Impetus-PEF’s Dr. Maria Neophytou, and KPMG’s Inclusion, Diversity and Social Equality Manager Jatin Patel. It was chaired by Joe Dromey, a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR.

Professor Rowlingson agreed that Brexit had been disruptive and called for an “overall national strategy”.

“The void that Brexit created is partly to blame leading to Alan Milburn to resign from the Social Mobility Commission. This issue is too important because we live in a highly segregated unequal society where the quality of your life depends far too much on the lottery of your birth. We need radical change on a range of fronts if we are going to tackle this.”

Brexit and social mobility are also interconnected when examining the future of the UK’s workforce, said KPMG’s Jatin Patel.

“There is a real need to have a discussion about the skills that our future work force will need, and that obviously intrinsically links to education and the post-Brexit world and the uncertainty that will rise around it. No one really knows what skills we will need and we need to have these conversations now in a broad and open way.”

Dr Maria Neophytou said that although government like to tell everyone that our youth employment rates make us the ‘envy of Europe’, such a claim does not hold up when comparing UK youth employment rates to likes of Iceland or the Netherlands.

She called upon the government to raise its standards, saying: “There are about 800,000 young people today who are NEET – not in a job or on a course for over a year – and not being in employment or in education for that amount of time has long term detrimental effects on their physical and mental health but also their future earnings power.”

Social mobility must be encouraged through a range of levels but one of the most pivotal areas of focus should be early childhood education, insisted Labour MP Lucy Powell.

“We know that the single biggest indicator as to how well someone will do at their GCSEs is their development level at the age of five.”

“We do not pay enough attention to those early years.”

The Labour MP recognised that the current government has boosted funding for early education, but thought it was ‘disgraceful’ that 7% of the funding will be going to top earning families.


So how can businesses look to tackle the problem?

“Work has a vital part to play in the social mobility story and secure working conditions, contracts, hours that match with a real living wage are fundamental to ensuring that people do not need to live and work while in poverty,” said KPMG’s Jatin Patel.

He said a good starting place is understanding your business.

“It is essential that companies use data to drive their interventions.”

“One of the issues that business have had is the lack of a universal clear metric to measure socio-economic background. Thankfully the cabinet office just published a set of guidelines suggesting parental occupation is the best way to judge a person’s socio-economic background.

“Take stock of your needs, your resources, your people, and then agree what programmes and interventions are most appropriate.”

KPMG was the first company to comprehensively publish the socio-economic background of their workforce in 2016, an essential step to ensuring their continued progress to further inclusion. 

He commended recent reforms to technical education as ‘positive’.

Dr Maria Neophytou agreed, but said that more needed to be done to make sure young people can access apprenticeships. She supported the idea put forward by the IPPR to use some of the money for the Apprenticeship Levy for pre-apprenticeship training to get young people in a position where they can access these opportunities.

Jatin insisted that for business, investing in social mobility is not just the right thing to do, but rather a “strategic imperative”.

“Promoting social mobility fosters understanding, erodes inequality and generates commercial success. It is absolutely the right thing to do.”