Political debate around social mobility tends to describe London as a success story. This reflects the tendency among politicians and commentators to see social mobility through the lens of school performance and exam results. The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) refers to London as a social mobility hotspot; however, this warrants closer investigation. The aim of this research is to understand to what extent disadvantaged Londoners can translate their better-than-average education attainment into successful careers.
Disadvantaged young people do exceptionally well in London’s education system up until the age of 16. Although students eligible for free school meals (FSM) underperform against the wider student population in London, the difference between the groups is much less marked than in other regions. Unfortunately, this performance at 16 does not continue into A level. Inner London’s strong performance at GCSE does not appear to translate into high A level grades.
London does exceptionally well at sending students from disadvantaged backgrounds to university. However, this is only part of the story - we know students at university in London are more likely to drop out of university compared to the other regions of England. Graduates are also affected by degree class attainment gaps by ethnicity and socio-economic status.
Although London has higher wages than other regions, London also has above average unemployment. The competitive nature of the city’s labour market can mean that graduates from London struggle to obtain graduate jobs. Graduates who lived in London prior to university have the lowest employment rate of graduates in England, and this is true one, three, five and ten years post-graduation. For those who gain employment, the story is more positive, with graduates from London having one of highest median salaries across the same time period.
Using the Next Steps dataset (LYSPE), The Social Market Foundation tracked Londoners who performed well at GCSE (5+ A* to C grades including English and Maths) into the labour market. This shows that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have significantly lower earnings at age 26 compared to those from more advantaged backgrounds. Londoners who have a degree and are from lower socio-economic backgrounds experience a ‘pay penalty’ of £1,664 per year. For those without a degree this pay penalty stands at £4,004.
Those from disadvantaged backgrounds who attended university are significantly less likely to have needed their highest qualification to secure their current job.
During this project, the Social Market Foundation have conducted qualitative research with 20 young Londoners who were eligible for FSM during their school years, performed well during their GCSEs and were aged 24 to 28 at the time of interview. This research, combined with conversations with prominent London employers and third sector organisations, enabled them to identify five barriers to success facing Londoners.
- Barrier 1: The importance of self-belief and ‘soft’ skills
‘Soft’, or more appropriately named, essential skills are increasingly important to get through interviews and succeed in the workplace, yet they are developed less in those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Barrier 2: Education choices and pathways
Young disadvantaged Londoners are let down by poor access to and low-quality careers advice. In some instances, individuals choose career paths due to pressures from family and peers rather than following their own interests.
- Barrier 3: Gaining work experience and internships
London’s job market is competitive. Work experience is important in helping secure employment and allowing young people to discover their strengths. Internships are common practice in the capital, often secured through connections and/or unpaid, which adds further barriers for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are often unable to access these opportunities. The number of professional sectors and occupations within London, which have themselves their own barriers to access, means the issues associated with social and cultural capital are exacerbated.
- Barrier 4: The implications of financial disadvantage
Unfortunately, financial disadvantage still plays a role in the opportunities available to, and undertaken by, Londoners. Concerns about student debt can mean some do not pursue higher education regardless of their ability. For those who do attend university, the need for income during gaps in study means internships are not accessible, and there can be financial pressure to secure any form of employment post-graduation.
- Barrier 5: The role of recruitment practices
Securing employment is one of the final hurdles for disadvantaged Londoners. Unfortunately, recruitment practices can add further difficulty. These include practices such as UCAS grade requirements, university filtering, the use of social connections and biased assessment practices.
The report puts forward ten policy measures to combat some of these barriers.
- Promotion of alumni networks
Alumni networks can be used to encourage students to visualise people like themselves in specific roles and industries. This type of engagement can help to break down stereotypes about the opportunities available to different genders, ethnicities and those from different socio- economic backgrounds. These are being developed by organisations such as Future First. We propose that funding is provided to scale up and roll out these networks.
- Improved essential skills
“Character Education” has been added to the school curriculum but this formal provision of essential skills will still exclude those who have left this stage of education. Essential / employability skills should be incorporated into the university and adult education curriculum. By making the development of these skills compulsory it would remove the ability of students to self-select out of the activities and ensure coverage in all types of academic setting.
- Ring-fenced funding for careers advice
The Department for Education should commit to creating a ring-fenced fund for careers advice and guidance, with additional weighted funding to schools with large numbers of pupils on FSMs.
- The creation of a schools’ outreach database
The Mayor of London should facilitate the creation of a school outreach database. This would enable employers to connect with schools that currently lack partnerships and help to diffuse the geographical concentration of outreach activity.
- The Mayor’s community careers champions
The Mayor should create groups of community careers champions. These community groups can spread information on how to navigate all available educational choices, the university admission processes and the best subjects to study for the long run. The champions could encourage parents to allow their children to follow the paths of their own choosing.
- Compulsory work experience in Year 12
The introduction of T levels means that those taking the vocational route during level 3 will be required to take part in work experience. We recommend that compulsory work experience should occur within Year 12 regardless of the qualification route taken. The government should release criteria that allows schools, students and employers to understand what constitutes as high-quality work experience.
- The Mayor’s challenge
The Mayor should challenge large employers to engage with London universities to fund internship opportunities for students at firms where paid internships are not feasible or the norm.
- The reintroduction of maintenance grants
The government should implement the recommendation from the Augar review of post-18 education to reintroduce maintenance grants to students from low income backgrounds to reduce their level of student debt.
- Evaluation of assessment practices
The Behavioural Insights Team should investigate recruitment practices in industries where there is underrepresentation of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
- Fair recruiter trademark
Employers and recruitment agencies should receive a trademark if their business complete several steps associated with fair and equal recruiting. There is scope to use the results of the recommended Behavioural Insights Team’s assessment of practices to develop the trademark.