Unlocking the UK’s potential: making social mobility work for all

14 December 2017

Social mobility is about the ability and freedom to move away from the specific socioeconomic circumstances under which one grew up. Inherent to this mobility is the knowledge and understanding of different available routes, and the opportunity to pick between them.

The UK is struggling to make its population socially mobile. Social and family backgrounds remain a strong predictor of what a person’s education, profession, income and living situation will be like. In essence, a lack of mobility amounts to a limitation of freedom, indicating that large parts of the population are missing out on paths that could be beneficial to them.

At times, social mobility can be perceived as picking out the most talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure their progress to the most competitive education routes and professions. Everyone loves the story of a child from a council estate growing up to be a top politician, a celebrity or a CEO. But while these opportunities are important, ‘excellence’ and ‘talent’ should not be conditions for having the chances more commonly available to people from privileged backgrounds.

Instead, the aim must be to ensure that regardless of your talent and who your parents are, you have the chance to make the most of your abilities. Public services have a major role to play in this. While the benefits of having been read to at home, or enjoying a stable family life, cannot be substituted by experiences at school or elsewhere, we know that good teaching and well-planned interventions can help children reach their full potential.

The role of public services in social mobility neither begins nor ends with education – health services, the criminal justice system and not least employment support must all embrace their part in improving life chances. Understanding systemic disadvantage is relevant to every single public-sector worker.

The responsibility for social mobility goes beyond the public sector. At a time when everyone is expressing their passion for it to succeed, the chance to create cross-sector strategies should be embraced. There is no one answer to what action on social mobility should look like, but it cannot only be an associated benefit of wider success – it is at the heart of a well-functioning, inclusive and just society. This applies to approaches to recruitment, learning opportunities, regional development and policy-making across the board.

Social mobility is not only about the extraordinarily talented who beat the odds and end up in positions of great influence. It’s about every citizen having the chance to succeed on their own terms without being restricted by circumstances outside of their control. Reform is delighted to welcome experts on social mobility across sectors and life stages, to discuss how the UK can make further progress.

Emilie Sundorph, Researcher, Reform



This article was published in Reform’s social mobility conference brochure on the 12th December 2017. You can read the brochure here.




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