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The Problem

Britain has a mobility problem. However, according to new research, the problem is not the one many have come to think it is. The study, conducted by Oxford University and LSE, has found that the political and media consensus on social mobility being in long term decline has been a misdiagnosis. Instead, the problem of mobility is more subtle, with more of us now at risk of moving down the social ladder due to an increasing lack of space at the top – a situation, says co-author Goldthorpe, that has “little historical precedent” with “potentially far-reaching political and wider social implications”. The study further found that inequalities in relative social mobility are significantly greater than thought previously, with a child whose father worked in a higher professional or managerial field 20 times more likely to end up in a similar job than a child with a working-class father.

The Debate

Excellent timing, then, for a debate about the challenges of social mobility – and just last Thursday, RSA Academies helped to play a part in the University of Warwick’s Inaugural Debate on this very subject. The event, held at the British Library, brought together a diverse panel of speakers, including Baroness Valarie Amos (UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator), Daulton Redmond (Principal of RSA Academy, Tipton), Professor Lesley Yellowlees (President of the Royal Society of Chemistry) and the IGGY debating competition winner, Annissa Warsame (and you can watch her winning entry here). A wide range of issues on social mobility were discussed, with key themes emerging from both the debate itself and the Q&A afterwards.

The Discussion

In particular, echoing the second finding of the research referenced above, there was much concern over the fact that certain groups in society suffer from series obstacles to climbing up the social mobility ladder. Prof. Yellowlees, first female president of the RSC, opened the debate with woeful statistics on the retention rates of females in STEM subjects with, for example, only one in three women studying a STEM subject going onto a career in that industry, compared with just over half of men. Baroness Amos further highlighted this problem when talking about the issue of race equality in higher education, with a worryingly high dropout rate for students from particular communities. Though, as Baroness Amos emphasised, the tensions within education for issues of both gender and race are complex, and we need to think about why some individuals from these groups excel and others don’t.

Another key theme from the debate related back to the above report’s finding of the squeezed top, with fewer professional jobs and a more educated workforce meaning that those who make it to university have no guaranteed path to graduate employment. This is worsened by the fact that, as both Annissa Warsame and Daulton Redmond commented, schools are increasingly having to narrow their metrics of success, merely testing a student’s ability to memorise and regurgitate information and thus only allowing the small number of those students who master this skillset to ‘succeed’. Further, this small number then may make it onto higher education but, with such a squeeze at the top, they risk falling right back down the ladder once they graduate.

Towards a Solution?

The overall conclusion from this discussion highlighted the need to make changes to the education system such that it benefited all young people. Final suggestions included changing the metrics to allow for broader measures of school performance and investing in further education colleges as, crucially, university is not for everyone and those who chose not to take that path deserve a respected alternative. All in all, the difficulty of ‘solving’ the mobility problem was recognised but this thought-provoking and stimulating debate inspired much confidence that it can indeed be tackled.

Find out more about the RSA Academies partnership with Warwick University here.

Follow us on Twitter: @RSAAcademies

Roisin Ellison (@RoisinEllison) is the RSA Academies Intern

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