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Closing the education gap is vital to boost social mobility across Britain

3 min read

Education is the fundamental precursor for turbocharging social mobility across Britain. In a 21st century all about human capital, that will see countries succeed or fail based on their ability to unlock talent, it matters more than ever.

More talent developed and connected to opportunity equals more success for Britain. Social mobility, levelling up, equality of opportunity – whatever your preferred language is – is about a level playing field for everyone when it comes to opportunity. Growing up in Rotherham I never demanded more opportunity than my more privileged peers elsewhere, I just didn’t see why I should have less. I think people see it just the same today.

Improving social mobility is a complex policy agenda to deliver, with lots of different actors at different times – including parents and family networks, civil society, local and regional government and employers. But Westminster policymakers should recognise that there is one crucial piece of the jigsaw that the public hugely relies on the government to deliver: education.

With the exception of the wealthiest who can afford private education for better outcomes for their own children, the rest of us are reliant on state education to develop our knowledge, skills and talent.

It means that some of the most life-shaping choices for all of us are made in Whitehall, principally in the Department for Education and HM Treasury. As the first comprehensive school educated education secretary, I felt a particular responsibility for improving a system that did so much to help me make something of my life.

It’s a simple but profound choice. Do we want 93 per cent of our country’s future talent who are reliant on state education to grow up and fully use their potential and contribute, or are we comfortable if they aren't?

Politicians of all parties need to accept that the status quo is that too many, in fact probably most of our children and young people, are growing up and not meeting their full potential. And after the damage wrought through lost schooling during the pandemic, this status quo has never been less acceptable.

In a different, smarter version of Britain, tackling the impact of Covid on the education of our younger generations and the inequalities that already exist would surely be at the top of the agenda. Future generations will castigate our lack of ambition for people – as well as saving our planet.

Insufficient action means the political system is effectively choosing to leave education gaps in place

At present, insufficient action means the political system is literally choosing to leave education gaps in place. A plan that sets out to close part of an education gap is only a partial plan. A “lines to take” list that gets you through an interview is not a plan. Having a conference or summit is not the same as a plan. It is akin to watching a house burn down whilst claiming your plan to save it is that you’ve got a bucket of water, had a meeting about it and can answer questions on it for three minutes –  long enough to get off-camera.

Closing education gaps is a generational challenge that needs a cross-party generational plan of substance, not spin.

In my social mobility work leading the Purpose Coalition, working with education and businesses across the country, it’s clear our young people today are as hungry as any generation to make something of themselves. Our political system must fulfil its responsibility to the post-Covid generation. It must deliver equality of opportunity through an education system that closes the inequality gaps for the most disadvantaged and additionally kickstarts their prospects. It will take collective leadership, a clarity of ambition, and sheer bloodymindedness to deliver what’s required.

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