Justine Greening: Social mobility must be at the heart of the government’s agenda in Brexit Britain
Speaking at the Social Mobility Employer Index launch event, Education Secretary Justine Greening called for social mobility to be “right at the heart of everyone’s agenda.”
The hottest day in June for more than 40 years greeted the inaugural unveiling of the Social Mobility Employer Index. Thought to be the first of its kind, the table measures the action taken by employers to ensure they are open to accessing and progressing talent from all backgrounds. The tropical weather was apt, then, as a beaming light was shone on the performance of some of the country’s top firms in helping to aid social mobility.
Education Secretary Justine Greening, addressing representatives from business, industry and government at London’s resplendent Guildhall Library, set out what is at stake. “It may not be glamorous, but if we can make progress on this then it will be transformational,” she said.
“Using all of the talents of people in our country is no longer an optional extra in Brexit Britain, it’s absolutely essential. The sooner that we can win this argument, to put social mobility right at the heart of everyone’s agenda - including in government, in parliament - the better, and I think the more united fundamentally our country will be.”
The list of the top 50 UK employers was led by professional services firms Grant Thornton and KPMG in first and second respectively. The Index is a joint initiative between the Social Mobility Foundation and the Social Mobility Commission, in partnership with the City of London Corporation. Its aim? To improve transparency and encourage companies to share their approach and progress in becoming more inclusive employers.
Some 98 firms submitted entries to the index, representing 17 sectors and 996,000 employees in Britain. The key findings of the programme include that employers are increasingly asking new and current employees about their social background. Seventeen percent of firms set social mobility targets as part of their core business strategy, 72% offer apprenticeships and 96% say they accept degrees from any university. Work is very much still to be done, however, as 61% of successful applicants attended one of the country’s most selective 24 universities.
Ms Greening, the daughter of a Rotherham steel worker who was educated at Oakwood Comprehensive school, began her speech by outlining her belief in a meritocratic society. The former accountant also recalled how she once missed out on a role after being taken out for lunch and failing to order her food in Italian. “I had a sense of it being a test I had failed, not because I wasn’t going to do a great job at that company, but because I came from a different place and had a different attitude to that situation,” she said.
“These are the small things that add up to big differences in terms of whether or not in the end people, I think, get opportunities.”
The incident, she reflected, was symptomatic of the “unconscious bias” against candidates from working class backgrounds among employers in Britain. Speaking earlier in the event, David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, said that this bias was often in fact “conscious”, as employers place emphasis on the university attended by applicants, their appearance and upbringing.
Ms Greening argued that the Social Mobility Employer Index helps to not only improve transparency, but also provide ministers with “evidence-bases to help us drive government policy.”
Turning to the future, Ms Greening said she longs for a “true, meaningful cross-party consensus” in parliament to be formed on driving the social mobility agenda forward. “No one thing is going to be that silver bullet that changes everything overnight,” she said.
“And it’s going to be thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of people doing things differently in their own lives, in their own spheres of influence that they’ve got in their own organisations, day-to-day. It’s as much as anything a change of heart in our country that we need to really drive social mobility.”
Former Labour minister Alan Milburn, the Government’s social mobility tsar, earlier painted a stark picture of inclusivity in Britain. He said that there is a growing sense of the UK becoming an “us and them society”, with many professions being dominated disproportionately by those from wealthier backgrounds. But he added: “There is a mood for change in the country”, citing the Index as a “celebration of those who are trying to tear down those barriers”.
“You are in tune with today’s political movement,” he declared. “You are helping to create a more level playing field of opportunity in our country. And that in my view should be the holy grail of public policy, the priority for the Government, and the cause that unites the whole nation for action. I believe it is a cause worth fighting for and I think that you are playing an enormous part.”
The top 50 list includes many of the UK’s most well-known law firms, government departments and financial services providers. Employers were measured against a set of seven criteria, including their work reaching out to young people, apprenticeships and internal and external advocacy. All participants will receive a report with recommendations on areas for improvement.
Melanie Richards, KPMG Vice Chair and senior sponsor for social mobility, was “thrilled” by the results, which saw her company finish second in the table. But, she stressed, it marks the beginning of the journey towards a more inclusive Britain. “I think we’re all in the foothills and still needing to drive further forwards. So I really don’t think job done, irrespective of where you are on the index. But I think the most exciting aspect we’ve started to see is the scale of the business community commitment to this agenda.
“It’s been a long standing commitment for us, and I think we want to continue to see it evolve. Part of the reason of course is it’s the right thing to do, we heard that today. But a big part of it is we know we need different sorts of people in our organisation if we’re going to present our partners with proper solutions to the problems that they have.”
Rory Hamilton completed KPMG’s Business Services Academy as an 18-year old and currently works as a Floor Coordinator. The Academy is a 15 month apprenticeship offering a Level 3 qualification in Business Administration. Now 23, Hamilton said he initially pictured his future working on a construction site. But after receiving the opportunity of an apprenticeship, he said he is “starting to get to where I want to be”.