Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not reveals new report from the Social Mobility Commission

Two decades of government efforts to improve social mobility have failed to deliver enough progress in reducing the gap between Britain’s ‘haves and have nots’, the Social Mobility Commission concluded in a hard-hitting new report titled, “Time for Change” published last week.

However, amongst the doom and gloom were various rays of light. The UK’s record employment rate has led to fewer children in workless households than ever before, child poverty is lower than it was twenty years ago, and there are more working class youngsters in Higher Education than at any point in history.

That said, there remains a stark income and wealth divide, a much bigger geographical divide and a new generational divide too. Action is clearly needed and it’s difficult to disagree with the broad thrust of the report’s conclusion that it is time for a change.

The steps to a sound career often begin with careers advice in schools and colleges. The report notes that the number of young people receiving careers advice has fallen and recommends incorporating it within the formal school timetable. AAT would support this, providing professional and technical education receives as much emphasis as Higher Education when it comes to recommending the best route to employment.

The report makes no mention of the often poor quality of careers advice or many schools obsession with a University education as the only game in town.

An Ofsted report published in 2013 found that three quarters of schools they visited were not delivering effective careers advice.

Improving careers advice and guidance in schools should be a real focus for the Department for Education given the widespread recognition that this would not only increase the life chances of disadvantaged young people and help lower the youth unemployment rate but that it would provide a much-needed boost for many of the country’s industries by addressing their increasing skills shortages.

Young people need to know about the jobs available, they can’t aspire to something they know nothing about. Being exposed to the various opportunities and the possibilities these can lead to is essential.

One relatively simple step that could be taken to achieve this is the creation of an integrated portal which brings together UCAS, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and other non-academic websites under a single managed service to ensure equal availability of information for all routes to employment.

Last year both the Social Mobility Commission and TeachFirst suggested vocational education needed to replicate the successful UCAS site. I disagree. Rather than maintaining an artificial separation, all options should be brought together in a single location that means young people receive information about all the various routes to employment at the same time, in the same place.

This could also help to combat some of the damaging guidance given to young people by parents and teachers. For instance, the wholly outdated misconception that a degree is required to become an accountant – although such misguided opinions are not just an issue for the accountancy sector.

A poll for the Freight Transport Association indicated that 71% of parents do not want their children to consider a career as a truck driver, a job for which there is currently a shortage that has led to more than 60,000 vacancies. Parents and teachers often conspire to direct their children away from other careers that pay well and for which there are significant labour shortages – bricklaying for example, with an average salary £36,000.

In January 2016, the Government promised that a comprehensive new careers strategy would be published in Spring the same year. AAT had hoped the new strategy would deal with many of these problems. Eighteen months later we are still waiting for it to see the light of day. When pressed on the issue, Government prevaricates and instead heralds a £90m investment in careers guidance over a four-year period (2016-2020). This money is welcome but the measure of success should not be an input. It should be outputs.

Of course careers advice is just one piece of the jigsaw. Apprenticeships are another. A renewed focus on the number of apprentices who complete their Apprenticeships (completions) rather than obsessing about the Government target of 3m Apprenticeships, is needed.

The quality of such Apprenticeships also needs active monitoring and improving where necessary. The new Institute for Apprenticeships has its work cut out to ensure this happens across the board, in every sector and in every workplace. The accountancy profession has a strong record here. SMEs, Charities, Government departments, local authorities and the big four are taking ever increasing numbers of Apprentices in recognition of their potential, providing high quality Apprenticeship schemes and then reaping the rewards. The same can also be said of efforts to improve social mobility more generally.

For example, only last month the first Social Mobility Employer Index boasted three accountancy firms amongst the top five employers – Grant Thornton (1) KPMG (2) and Deloitte (5). Others including PwC (7) and EY (16) appeared in the top 20.

However, the same cannot be said across all industries.

And what about pay? The NUS describe the current Apprenticeship wage of £3.50 an hour as “exploitative” and would like to see the standard National Minimum Wage rates apply to Apprentices too. Similarly, the Social Mobility Commission has indicated that by offering such low rates of pay, Apprenticeships are not as attractive to those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds because parental support is unlikely and will therefore not offset low wages.

That said, there may be sound policy reasons for having an Apprenticeship wage that is lower than standard rates of pay. It makes taking on an Apprentice more attractive to employers. Many Apprentices are likely to spend more time training than working. There is often a significant financial investment from employers (on average it costs between £15,000-£30,000 to train an Apprentice). Another consideration not to be forgotten is that an Apprentice will likely avoid the high levels of debt (£44,000 on average) being amassed by University graduates.

AAT members seem to agree with the former arguments rather than the latter. Whilst 19% of those who responded to the recent AAT Minimum Wage Survey 2017 would like to see the Apprenticeship wage maintained at its current rate, an overwhelming 70% believe an increase is necessary. 11% believe the Apprenticeship wage should be scrapped altogether and the standard minimum wage paid instead, no AAT members supported a decrease in the Apprenticeship Wage.

Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. There can be no question that educational institutions and businesses large and small can do more to help deliver greater social mobility. Like many organisations, AAT is playing a part in seeking to change things for the better. Join us and others by doing whatever you can to play a part too.

Phil Hall is AAT's Head of Public Affairs and Public Policy.

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