In the context of young people, an early indicator for social mobility is attainment, in particular academic attainment whilst at school, and how this prepares individuals for higher education and higher levels of employment. It is also referenced in connection with levels of affluence or deprivation in terms of income and social class. Evidence shows there to be wide variances between the academic achievement of children from more “well-off” families and children from poorer backgrounds. Young people from well–off backgrounds are twice as likely to achieve good GCSE's (Grades A*-C) in key subjects by age sixteen than young people who are eligible for free school meals.4
The disparity in attainment continues beyond age sixteen; only three per cent of the lowest socioeconomic group achieve higher than three Grade Bs at A Level compared to twenty-five per cent of the highest group and this has profound implications for entry to University, particularly those Universities that are held in higher esteem.
Approximately seven per cent of state school pupils go to an “elite” university, only two per cent of those on free school meals do the same. At the most privileged end of the spectrum, ninety-six per cent of those young people educated in independent schools progress to university, compared to one third of students overall.5 The top 100 elite schools (almost all independent schools) accounted for a third of Oxbridge admissions between 2003–2008.6 Of course, social class or income of
a family is not the determinant of achievement, but the correlation between class and income and educational attainment is strong.
These figures must be understood in the light of the numbers and ratio of young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds who actually apply to university, where it is clear that proportionally far fewer young people from disadvantaged background do so, partly a product of attainment levels and partly of aspiration; surveys of young people from differing backgrounds show the gap in aspiration and expectation. It is not just academic attainment that shape individual aspirations, but the wider attitude and character of individuals, whose outlook is shaped by their experience and that of their elders and peers.
Research undertaken by The Prince's Trust, RBS, and YouGov7 show the disparity in expectation between young people from different social and economic backgrounds:
Work and career
Although academic attainment is a strong indicator for future success and describes success itself to some extent, social mobility is primarily measured by changes in employment status and individual
or family income. A university education is essential for many careers, particularly professional careers and an increasing number of professional careers have graduate entry minimum criteria which hitherto was not the case. There is still a considerable way to go to open up these professional routes to wider sections of society in achieving greater social mobility. The economics of university tuition fees, which have tripled in recent times, may make this even more difficult to achieve. It should be the case therefore that professional bodies will need to look beyond universities to source the talent they will need in the future? However, it is the case that there are many young people who have the talent and the ability to pursue professional careers, but don't because university entry routes are not attractive, or simply because university education is considered to be not for people like them; particularly where there is no history of family members having had the benefit of a university education. Yet, a core requirement for many of these careers goes beyond academic qualifications and highlights the importance of personal and interpersonal skills. In preparing young people for working life and to open up the range of possibilities before them it is necessary to help them to aspire, which may mean challenging them to think and act in ways that have not felt comfortable or confident.
Social mobility is not just about the move from one strata of society to another, but the ability, for example, to move from unemployment into employment or to progress in employment to higher level occupations. Here again, education and academic achievement is important, but it is not the only, nor necessarily the main, prerequisite to be successful in career terms. The employment market is changing at a rate that has not been witnessed before, with a greater impact for wealth creation and productivity than the industrial revolution of its time in the nineteenth century. It is estimated that young people leaving school today can expect up to fourteen changes of career by the age of thirty-eight, such is the pace of technology and the way in which industries are having to adapt to a global and competitive economy. Enabling young people and adults to operate in this volatile environment will require them to be able to manage change and demonstrate resilience, to keep pace with change and where they can keep one step ahead.