Looking beyond social mobility: advancing social equality

Author: Nik Miller, Chief Executive, Bridge Group

It’s important to understand the limitations of the social mobility agenda – and the initiatives it has given rise to – to focus energies on crafting meaningful and lasting solutions to achieve social equality. Our trustee, Jude Heaton, has helpfully, and clearly, set out the limits of the social mobility narrative to effect positive structural change. But faced with the inadequacy of prevailing frameworks to help organisations and society tackle class inequality, questions arise: if social mobility isn’t the route to greater equality, what is? And, importantly, what is the Bridge Group doing? How is the charity working to shift attention away from social mobility and onto the broader, structural problems giving rise to social inequality?

Understanding the barriers of social mobility provides the starting point for action. Our role is to turn ideas into a series of concrete steps to achieve social change.

Changing the terms of reference

A key starting point for the Bridge Group has been establishing an enabling vocabulary to guide thinking and activity around the subject of social equality. This involves finding ways to address challenging topics on social class and give voice to individuals who experience financial hardship in a sensitive manner, without using value-laden terms that presume ‘privilege’, ‘advantage’, and ‘affluence’ as the norm. Too often, terms are used that attribute lack or deficiency to individuals and communities of people that have the effect of reinforcing inequality and traditional hierarchies (‘less-privileged’, ‘disadvantaged’, and ‘less-affluent). We are working closely with organisations to help them use language differently to narrow the social gaps between people and foster productive and inclusive working environments. Introducing a new vocabulary – and exposing problems with existing language-use – plays a part in combatting implicit codes and practices that can be perceived as exclusive, derisory, and unhelpful.

The dominant social mobility story centres on ‘lifting’ capable and aspiring working class individuals, by means of education and training, to a higher social status. This is limited in so many ways: not least, because of its focus on a few rather than the needs and interests of the majority, and its commitment to fixing the individual rather than the exclusive systems and organisations giving rise to inequality. We shun the term ‘access’ which perpetuates hierarchies – with elite groups acting as gatekeepers and controlling entry – and focus on identifying structural barriers through rigorous research. From this research, we are able to derive recommendations to effect practical change in organisations (rather than channelling our efforts into helping new graduates fit in).

Driving organisational and institutional change

We work closely with higher education institutions and employers and offer practical toolkits to help them transform their organisational cultures and practices to create more inclusive contexts for individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds to enter and thrive. Transforming admissions and recruitment procedures are a key step towards diversifying higher education institutions and workforces. But we need to look beyond simply ‘getting people in’ to achieve meaningful social equality. Our research often exposes the subtle and complex barriers to progression faced by individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds as a result of the prevalence of classist cultures.

Recognising groups overlooked by social mobility objectives

The Bridge Group draws attention to the problems resulting from the dominant social mobility project and gives voice to the needs and interests of groups that are overlooked and underexplored. For instance, in the context of higher education, the social mobility drive has channelled energy and resources on school leavers at the expense of part-time and mature students. This omission has had dire consequences for social justice in higher education, with part-time participation falling by 61% since 2010. The invisibility of mature students in the system, and, strikingly, from data collected to comment on social mobility, points to the inadequacy of the frameworks in operation to achieve greater social equality. We are working with colleagues to expose the needs and interests of part-time and mature students and identify reforms to the system to promote greater flexibility and inclusivity and opportunities for life-long learning.

In February, we published a report, The Influence of Place, highlighting the failure of the social mobility narrative for young people living in remote rural and coastal communities. The concept has driven reforms and channelled funding in ways that have bypassed isolated areas. It’s underpinned by an expectation of geographical mobility that obstructs regional economic growth and, therefore, geographical equality. Our recommendations will play a part in shifting agendas and redistributing resources to promote social change.

Setting the terms of debate on social equality  

But social change wouldn’t be possible without people ‘on the ground’ working practically across the UK to make it happen. A significant part of our work involves convening people, from across sectors, to share existing evidence and effective practice and devise practical solutions. The policy events we hold throughout the year contribute to raising awareness of the key issues and motivating action.

Our annual conference typifies the way that we challenge assumptions and pose new questions to build understanding of the scale of the social problem. On 21 May, we’ll bring together senior leaders and influencers from across the employer, government, education and charity sectors to advance social equality. Internationally leading thinkers play a part in challenging prevailing assumptions around social mobility, urging the importance of attending to wider socio-economic factors contributing to inequality. Our 2019 conference, hosted by the BBC, will be more ambitious than ever in its drive to define implementable solutions to reduce inequality.

The beating heart of the Bridge Group is turning ideas into action. For us, exposing the limitations of the social mobility narrative has served as a springboard to focus our energies and drive activity across sectors to effect lasting change.