Bridge Group Conference 2018

Raising the Stakes: Collective Action in Pursuit of Social Mobility

200 senior leaders and experienced practitioners – from government departments, higher education institutions, charities, and the employer sector – attended our annual conference at KPMG on 15 May.

The conference focused on the persistence of social and educational inequality despite almost two decades of policy and activity meant to achieve reform; and following the failure of successive governments to comprehend the scale of the challenge and design a coherent, cross-departmental strategy for change. It considered the main barriers facing learners, of all ages, with regard to accessing higher education and graduate careers and succeeding in them.

A recurring theme was the need for ‘ground-up’ reform – in the absence of government leadership – and on the transformational power of personal narratives to challenge classist cultures and increase socio-economic diversity. Repeatedly, we heard calls for collaboration, transparency, and the value of sharing best practice within and across sectors.

The following provides an overview of the key ideas and recommendations for policy explored at our conference.

You can view presentation slides here:

Key Themes and Policy Recommendations

Rethinking the narrative of social mobility

  • There needs to be an increased focus on reducing overall inequality in the UK to achieve greater social mobility.
  • The government has failed to tackle the social divide and the gap is growing. Instead of waiting for government interventions, places can tackle disadvantage from the ‘ground-up’ to create a fairer society.
  • The Social Mobility Institute aims to codify best practice for communities in achieving social reform.
  • Whilst gender and racial discrimination are widely recognised, class discrimination is not; therefore, class should be a protected characteristic to help raise awareness of the influence of ‘institutional classism’.
  • The cultures and practices of elite, classist institutions and organisations need to be transformed to achieve greater social equality.
  • Action needs to be taken to rebalance economic growth and employers need to consider relocating away from the South East to redistribute wealth and opportunities.
  • Greater emphasis needs to be placed on upskilling, particularly in large firms, to enable social mobility.

The school sector

Key themes

  • The gap in school-level attainment by background remains a barrier to participation in higher education. It continues to mean that pupils from lower social backgrounds have more limited options regarding both course and type of institution.
  • Child poverty remains a persistent and pressing issue that is under-explored and insufficiently discussed. More needs to be done to understand the material barrier of poverty to pupil performance.
  • The Office for Students recognises the limited capacity in schools to support the uptake and impact of widening participation outreach activity.
  • High quality careers advice and guidance is required if pupils are to make informed decisions about their post-16 educational and career options. But schools have limited capacity and often the pupils most in need of sustained, impartial support are those who do not receive it.

Policy recommendations

  • The government is encouraging employers to commit more time and resource to schools as part of their participation in the Social Mobility Pledge.
  • The Office for Students asks the Bridge Group to continue to help inform developments relating to outreach in rural and coastal areas.

The higher education sector

Key themes

  • The higher education sector is highly stratified and divided along class lines.
  • Widening participation activity correlates with an increase in socio-economic diversity across the sector, but there is still a participation gap, widest in the most selective institutions.
  • There is significant variation in the quality and purposefulness of activity and greater focus needs to be given to monitoring and evaluation.
  • Unconditional offers made by universities can have a detrimental impact on learners’ A-level or equivalent performance, which can impact negatively on their graduate prospects, given the importance of A-level grades to many employers.
  • The priority accorded to entry tariff in university league tables has led to inflated entry requirements and discourages some institutions or courses from reducing the offer for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This can deter such students from applying and/or gaining a place.
  • Urgent action is needed to address the catastrophic decline in part-time education following changes in fees and funding.

Policy recommendations

  • Higher education institutions should work more closely with schools in developing their outreach, with the aim of making it more cohesive and sustainable.
  • The Office for Students recognises the evaluation expertise residing in the third sector and is looking to improve impact and evaluation techniques.
  • UCAS advocates removing entry tariff from league tables or reducing its weighting. UCAS would like to see a consortium of third-sector organisations, higher education institutions and others lobby league table editors on this point.
  • Higher education institutions need to make more and better use of contextual admissions. UCAS is preparing a multiple equality measure to help institutions contextualise background.
  • The government needs to increase incentives for higher education institutions to offer flexible provision, so students can fit study around work.
  • Higher education institutions need to be more transparent and accurate in their published course entry requirements.

Employer sector

Key themes

  • Employers need to place less emphasis on recruiting from the most selective higher education institutions, which are the least socio-economically diverse, and work with a more inclusive group of institutions. Employers also need to take a more creative approach in their selection methods to identifying potential.
  • Since class is not a protected characteristic, employers see it as less of a priority than gender and ethnicity, which are protected. Employers therefore don’t collect data that would help to describe the nature of the challenge.
  • Attitudes to work and types of employer vary by background. This can mean that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds self-select out of careers defined as ‘intimidating’.
  • It’s not just about ‘getting in’ to organisations that are perceived to be middle-class dominated; it’s also about ‘getting on’.
  • ‘Microaggressions’ take place that can make employees feel like ‘imposters’ and limit their career progression.
  • Definitions of merit need to be scrutinised to ensure they provide an objective way of judging performance; too often they are underpinned by classist assumptions related to accent, behaviour, and experience. (Follow the link to read Sam Friedman’s blog.)

Policy recommendations

  • Employers need to take a consistent and robust approach to gathering data on socio-economic background in order to measure the scale of the challenge and monitor it; data should cover both new recruits and long-standing employees.
  • Employers should secure support at senior level to reform classist organisational cultures and promote the business case for socio-economic diversity.
  • Employers’ human resources staff should review their definitions of talent and good performance.
  • There should be more collaboration within and between sectors to develop a collectively strategic approach and share best practice.

Next steps for the Bridge Group

  • League tables: collaborate with partners to encourage the editors of league tables to introduce reforms to promote social mobility.
  • Mature students: increase higher education institutions’ understanding by collating and sharing case studies of mature students’ experiences and effective measures to support their success.
  • Support employers in attracting a more diverse pool of applicants: provide tailored data and advice by arrangement.
  • Building the evidence base for understanding the business case for socio-economic diversity: collaborate with the Social Mobility Commission to publish a summary of key points.
  • Transparency: lobbying for access to data to ensure independent research and evaluations are possible.

Topics to explore further

There were some overarching themes from the conference that demand greater attention and investigation to promote social equality. For instance: child poverty; measuring socio-economic background; and how universities and employers can learn from each other.