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There can be no true levelling up if social mobility cold spots endure

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

4 min read

A radical new partnership is needed between government, business and civil society to ensure fairness, not privilege, dictates who gets ahead in the post-Covid economic recovery.

There has been much speculation about the true meaning of the levelling up agenda. But its central promise is unambiguous. Levelling up seeks to close the gap between the haves and have-nots. As CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), the reinvigoration of this idea in Westminster and Whitehall is welcome. The pandemic has created a social mobility emergency and remedial action is needed now.

At the SMF, we work with high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds. We provide these students with the opportunities and networks, readily available to their more affluent peers, to join the top universities and professions.

The pandemic has seriously dented the economic and social prospects of these young people and, as a recent poll of 1,500 SMF students showed last month, they are hugely pessimistic about the prospects of post-pandemic social mobility.

Just 14 per cent of participants agreed that “everyone in the UK has an equal chance of getting where they want in life, regardless of their class background”; 72 per cent agreed that “people get ahead in life because of what job their parents did/do”; and 85 per cent of participants agreed that “people get ahead in the workplace because of who they know”.

Investment in opportunities must be the overriding objective of the government’s agenda

This paints an alarming picture. Yet rather than being downbeat, I am optimistic – this is an opportunity to be seized. It has been clear, for a long time, that a radical new approach to social mobility is needed. Even prior to the pandemic, it was getting harder for young people to climb the social ladder; with social mobility “cold spots” – like Chiltern, Bradford and Hyndburn – consistently providing little or no opportunity for young people to earn more than their parents. The focus on levelling up, combined with the inequality the pandemic has exacerbated, must be a catalyst to improve social mobility.

Our starting point must be to look at how we can fix the system as well as supporting individuals to succeed. Social mobility cold spots exist for a reason: a lack of investment in education, skills and attention that has persisted over decades. Education and skills, in particular, are key drivers of social mobility. While investment in infrastructure is vital, investment in opportunities in every part of the UK must be the overriding objective of the government’s agenda.

Delivering this will require a radical new partnership between government, business and civil society. While this must be spearheaded from the top, with a potential candidate in Neil O’Brien – the Prime Minister’s levelling up adviser – delivery must be both top-down through the levers of Whitehall, and bottom-up through on-the-ground opportunities that business and civil society can deliver at pace.

Government would provide leadership and investment; the private sector would bring its own investment, supporting the creation of employment opportunities and outreach work; and the third sector would bring programme delivery capabilities and local expertise to ensure interventions are well targeted and properly evaluated.

The SMF’s own work, particularly our Social Mobility Employer Index, shows the scale and potential of the grassroots activity. Last year, 119 employers participated in the index and collectively reached 939,130 young people via school outreach, provided 9,902 work experience opportunities and 11,625 mentoring opportunities. If galvanised and directed, the private sector can play an even great role in the levelling up agenda.

Ultimately, social mobility is about fairness. Is Britain a country where people have a fair chance to progress to the top jobs – no matter what situation they are born into? The answer, for too long, has been no. Levelling up presents a golden opportunity to lead, leverage and unite civil society and the private sector as social mobility champions.

The alternative, to wait for taskforces and tsars to bridge the gap between rhetoric and policy on levelling up, is not an option. The time for radical action is now.


Sarah Atkinson is CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation.

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