On your bike – social mobility outside London

James Turner says that a priority is spreading the riches of opportunity beyond the capital

A young man from a deprived borough of London, with immigrant parents, was describing his aspiration to read Law at Oxbridge. He listed the opportunities he’d accessed over the last two years in pursuit of this dream: an internship programme, a leadership development initiative, one of our Sutton Trust summer schools – and he was being mentored by a senior partner at one of the world’s leading law firms.

It was a tremendous story of determination, aspiration and – very likely – social mobility.

But a question struck me.  How likely is it that he’d have these same chances if he lived not in Hackney, but in, say, Blackpool, Scunthorpe or Hastings? Almost certainly nil.  And our society would be poorer as a result.

It is always striking how much activity is focused in London. There are good reasons for this – London has poverty and inequality; it is the centre of business for many of the wealthiest and most active corporations who sponsor much good work; and there is no better place to get your work noticed than within spitting distance of Whitehall.

But London’s school results are out shining other urban areas.  Its university progression rates are higher.  Spend per head in schools is generally greater – even before you factor in the spending of charities and corporates.

And some of the most pressing issues of social mobility lie outside the capital – in coastal towns, ex-industrial heartlands in The Midlands and the North, and in forgotten rural areas.  Not only do these areas face material poverty, but often cultural deprivation too.  The signs of aspiration a young Londoner may see out of his or her window – Canary Wharf, The City, the towers of Westminster – seem a million miles away from a crumbling social housing estate in the North East.

The challenge for organisations like ours is to reach these communities directly through our work – and to make it feasible and cost effective for others in the capital to access this national pool of untapped talent.  It is a redistribution of opportunities from the capital outwards.

There are some good schemes underway. The Social Mobility Foundation’s programme to provide City internships to disadvantaged young people from the regions is a great example – and we plan something similar thing in the legal sector next year as part of Pathways to Law. And one of the advantages our summer schools bring to London universities is a truly national reach – with students recruited from all corners of the UK.

But there also needs to be a more systematic way – through funding, partnership work and collaboration – of ensuring activity is not focussed on a few lucky ones, but spread where it is most needed. The Education Endowment Foundation is doing sterling work.  The projects it has supported range from Bournemouth in the South to County Durham in the North, via almost every local authority region in between.

Social mobility is about more than turning on the tap of talent for one city, important though that is. The country is awash with young men and women with great potential who equally deserve a chance to shine.

One thought on “On your bike – social mobility outside London

  1. What about access to medicine? London has arguably some of the best medical schools in the world. What spread of disadvantaged students are being considered by them outside a restricted catchment area? Even then, can this really make a difference given the selection processes? Plenty of food for thought for the Trust to get stuck into …

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