A new book calls for radical action on exploitative employers, detached ruling elites and the middle class commandeering of educational opportunities


Prospects for social mobility are bleak in Britain with the rich and poor destined to stay on the same rungs of the income or social ladder for successive generations.


Young people today face an unprecedented era of falling real wages, declining opportunities, and stark inequalities in income, wealth and education. The dream of just doing better, let alone climbing the income ladder, is dying.


These are the conclusions of 'Social Mobility and its Enemies', a book by Professor Stephen Machin, Director of the Centre for Economic Performance, and Dr Lee Elliot Major, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust.


Failure to act now, warn the authors, will only store up greater problems for the future. Your life prospects in the future will be linked not just to the status of your parents but your great-great-great-grandparents. But policies to improve access to education and improve conditions in the workplace, could lead to a more mobile society.


Most people agree with the principle that talent and hard work, rather than background, should determine success in life. Yet the authors identify the many enemies of social mobility: 'opportunity hoarders', privileged parents stopping at nothing to prevent their children sliding down the social ladder; exploitative employers failing to invest in their staff; and detached ruling elites, vowing to work for the many, but pursuing policies for the few.


Reviewing hundreds of studies and synthesising the key findings, the authors show the overwhelming evidence that confirms a causal link between inequality and social mobility levels. And far from acting as the great social leveller, the education system has been commandeered by the middle classes to retain their advantage from one generation to the next.


Earlier this month thousands of teenagers received their 'A' Level results, results calculated by teachers after the Coronavirus pandemic took away any chance for students to sit their exams, a third of these results in England (35.6%) were downgraded by one grade from the mark issued by teachers.


A further 3.3% saw a drop of two grades while 0.2% were downgraded by three grades. The proportion of private school students receiving A and A* was more than twice as high as the proportion of students at comprehensive schools, underscoring the extent of inequality in the education system and disadvantaged students among those more likely to have received lower grades than predicted.


Almost 40% of teachers recommended English A-level grades were downgraded this year, with initial final results decided by algorithm and following the cancellation of exams.


But not all students fared equally. Poorer students and those studying at comprehensive schools are among those more likely to have received lower grades based on algorithmically assigned results.

'Life is unfair' is a common refrain uttered by children.


It will be a sentiment acutely felt by thousands of teenagers (and their parents) more than ever in this year's unprecedented exam grades season. Many feel they have been harshly treated by a system cobbled together to estimate A-level and GCSE grades following the cancellation of exams in the wake of COVID-19.


The planned system of calculated grades, using historical school data, sought to maintain the same broad distribution of grades as for previous cohorts. Exam regulators in England reported that this system had not increased the socio-economic gap in results between poorer pupils and their more privileged counterparts.


However just days after the results were announced, in a spectacular U-turn, the education secretary announced the government would scrap the controversial standardisation model drawn up by the exam regulator to award grades in lieu of exams. Instead, both A-levels and GCSE results will now revert to centre-assessed grades, which were submitted by schools earlier this summer.


What is certain is that the credibility of 2020's grades has been seriously undermined. Universities and employers will be understandably nervous about the results. It will also cast doubt on another aspect of fairness.


If students now end up with inflated grades in 2020, then that will not be fair on those taking exams next year. Research reveals that injustices are set in train long before examination grades are produced; and they are likely to extend for decades into the future. Social mobility is shaped by inequalities both outside and inside education.


And on both counts, the 'COVID generation', the under 25s, currently look like the generation whose luck has run out.


Education as a race...

Social mobility research tells us that education operates primarily as a positional good. What matters is how much better you have done than your fellow pupils – and whether you have got the marks that allow you to get into sixth form or university or to get a job. If education is a race, then those from poorer backgrounds are penalised from the start.


And at every hurdle they face a bigger fall. Partial school closures during the pandemic have exposed the stark inequalities in children's home lives. Often living in cramped and crowded conditions, without computers let alone help from private tutors, disadvantaged pupils have suffered devastating learning losses.


Many have had to take on work to ensure their families survive. At the same time, because of rising labour market inequalities and job losses that disproportionately impacting particular sections of society, the education stakes are now higher than ever before.


Failure to pass a grade may result in longer-term scarring exacerbated by the recession: unemployment and lower wages that will persist over the life cycle. The COVID-19 recession is already showing sharply uneven effects that are raising labour market inequalities.


Experiencing job loss, reduced hours of work or being furloughed are all affecting the already disadvantaged by more. Yet these inequalities are taking time to show up in official statistics. The unemployment rate is stable, but not because the labour market has little slack, but because much of the job loss and hours cuts are not yet visible in data.


The 'COVID generation' is not faring well in the labour market. Recent analysis calculates a realistic employment rate where individuals in jobs but doing zero hours of work are treated as not working. In the post-lockdown period (April to June), this matters massively.


The realistic employment rate for those aged between 18-64 drops by 16 percentage points between February and June 2020. In February, 78% were working. This drops to 54% in April when there was complete lockdown, and whilst rebounding a little, it remains far lower by June at 62%. The situation is considerably worse for those aged 18-24.


Their realistic employment rate drops by an enormous 34 percentage points between February and April, and then only recovers on the easing of lockdown to be 26 percentage points lower at 47% by June. From a social mobility perspective, this does not bode well for the young generation – school leavers and university graduates – who have yet to move into their first jobs.


It seems inevitable that they will be hard hit, especially those from lower income backgrounds and with lower educational levels who would be likely to work in the sectors that the COVID recession has, and will, continue to decimate.


This includes employment in the services and hospitality sectors, for example, which disproportionately employ younger and lower-paid workers.

Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin believe there are five ways the government could help to level up an even more unequal playing field created by the pandemic.


Education and employment have become central battlegrounds for this government as part of its 'levelling-up' agenda. The key insight from our research is to address both inequalities in the classroom and the workplace.


First, we need assurances for the one million students getting A-level and GCSE grades in 2020, that universities, colleges, sixth forms and employers will make even greater efforts to identify and enrol talented pupils from poorer backgrounds.


That means clear lower grade offers for those pupils who can show they have been particularly disadvantaged during these difficult times. Extra support will also be needed to ensure poorer pupils are not further disadvantaged when appealing against grades or taking school exams in the autumn.


Second, we need children to return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible. As soon as the exam season subsides attention will switch to the school start in September - Their evidence on the long-term damage from learning loss is clear.


They welcome the government's National Tutoring Programme and hope it will provide schools with access to extra tutoring support – although details of how this will be implemented in practice remain unclear.


Third, we should guarantee jobs for those who are at risk of long-term unemployment. The huge economic, psychological, and social costs of long-term unemployment must be avoided at all costs.


These jobs could be productive for the country in other ways, creating a more sustainable environment, for example. Parental unemployment is damaging to individual life prospects, but also has negative impacts on the future educational outcomes of children.


Fourth, we need to create a proper vocational and training system. That means a credible vocational stream in schools from the age of 14, and a lifelong levy to support training in the workplace (to replace the current apprenticeship levy).


Retraining will become even more important as people seek new jobs in the post-COVID world. There could be incentives for re-skilling in the tax system, in the form of human capital tax credits.


Fifth, we should introduce a one-off progressive wealth tax assessed on the net worth of the top 1% of richest individuals. As we look to recover from the COVID-19 recession, economic history suggests that such a tax would put the country on a path of inclusive growth and economic rejuvenation.


This would be enough to repay all the extra debt due to the pandemic after ten years. As the summer's debate over exam grades rages, the biggest worry is that we all collectively fail the social mobility test: education and employment during COVID-19 will become the great differentiators, not the great equalisers we all hope for. If we fail a whole generation, that certainly would be unfair.


So, Prosper asks the question, why should you care as an employer?

As it turns out, there is a valid business case

  • Companies that widen their talent pool can increase their competitive advantage – 43% of businesses with more diverse workforces have higher profits

  • Inclusive teams make better business decisions 87% of the time. And they make decisions twice as fast, delivering 60% better results

  • Employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds on average outperform their more advantaged peers

  • Individuals who start their careers via an apprentice scheme are likely to stay longer, reducing recruitment costs

  • Leading companies such as HS2, Channel 4, KPMG and Compass are optimising their workforce for socio-economic diversity. As this becomes the norm, employees may give preference to companies that champion socio-economic diversity as a matter of principle as it reflects a forward-thinking, inclusive ethos.


COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but it is clear that those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are most at risk of being left behind in terms of education and work opportunities.


So, this crisis also presents an opportunity for employers to lead the pack in terms of social mobility, ensuring a more diverse, productive and content workforce going forward.

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