Social mobility has been in the press again of late and this sacred phrase represents a significant challenge for our country and for Bristol.
Just over a week ago, former Labour minister Alan Milburn presented his report on social mobility and highlighted the challenges we face as a country if we are to adequately provide equality of opportunity to all of our children.
One of the greatest travesties of this country is the significant link between where you’ve come from and where you end up. It has been shown that your outcomes in life are largely determined within the first four years of your life, a time when you are unable to take control of your own circumstances.
This is particularly true in the areas of media, medicine, law and politics/government and at a time of mass unemployment, especially among the young, the recent report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills makes uncomfortable reading. This report, which tracks future job prospects, has reported that there will be an extra 1.5m jobs by 2020. This is great news, except that 83% of those will be in professional services, requiring higher level education and skills.
It would of course be untrue to say that all poor kids are unable to fulfil their potential. I, for one, spent most of my pre-university life on the Henacre Road estate in Lawrence Weston living in relative poverty but I now practice commercial law. It can be done. But it’s hard work.
This barrier to opportunity and the fulfilment of one’s potential isn’t just a problem for our country but one inherent in the make up of our city. Bristol has some of the most deprived communities in the country for education, training and skills yet if you walk for only 15 minutes you can travel between the most deprived and the least deprived areas in our city.
I very much believe in the idea of a strategic state and if we are to harness all of the potential we have as a country and city we must make provision to ensure that poor kids aren’t left behind. This means investing in pre-school services, such as Sure Start, not cutting them. This means giving additional funding to primary schools to help give interventions to bring their pupils up to and beyond the average and it means making sure secondary schools focus not just on GCSE results but career planning, financial management, CV and interview skills, networking and work experience, too.
It also means bringing back the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) so that pupils with no family financial support can get to college to learn and making young people understand the nature of higher education without being immediately put off by the scandalous increase in tuition fees.
Some say that this is all nonsense and that, if a child wants to do well, they will. I vehemently disagree with the former but somewhat agree with the latter. From personal experience I know that it can be done but the journey that needs to be taken is vast and the challenges significant. For many this challenge is seen as being just too insurmountable. So many opportunities come from whom you know and not what you know.
Getting this right is important for the success of our city and our country. Today, we are a nation of people that provide services; services that require higher level thinking, education and understanding. This includes higher level manufacturing, too, and the teaching and creating of an environment for entrepreneurialism is also vital to the future of our nation’s growth and these areas ring so true for the creative service city that Bristol is.
All of these things require us to harness all of our potential and, at the moment, we only capture a small percentage of what Bristol and the British people have to offer.
As a former Chair of Governors at Avon Primary School on the cusp of Lawrence Weston, Avonmouth and Shirehampton I have seen the significant challenges our teachers face when a pupil comes into school already far below the average in key skills. The amount of hard work it takes to bring them to the average by the time they leave is vast and even then, in the wider market that is educated and skilled young people, this isn’t enough.
I also recently returned to my old secondary school, Portway Community School (now Oasis Academy Brightstowe), with my firm to talk to year nine pupils about fulfilling their dreams and my biggest sadness was remembering that, for many, the problems began with a sheer lack of understanding of what the opportunities are in the first place. These young people were looking at the horizons of their lives and had no idea what was available to them.
We live in a fractured city with disturbing inequality and we live in a country that, in my opinion, will continue to move towards being a nation of the haves and the have nots. For the future prosperity of our city and our nation, we must get this right.
Darren Jones is a trainee solicitor, school governor and Prince’s Trust business mentor. You can contact Darren via e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org , twitter on @darrenpjones or via Facebook at www.facebook.com/darrenjones.