14 March 2019
“The non-cognitive skills are formed not by study but by people who become trusted mentors, and by group activities such as sports where children can learn co-operation and leadership. Finding a mentor who is both usefully knowledgeable and trusted depends upon the breadth of the child’s social network, which in turn will reflect that of the family… Mentoring by someone whom a teenager has chosen to listen to is not just useful for information: it is a source of the narratives that people use to guide their lives.”
Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism
The Department for Education’s first ‘social mobility’ strategy appeared in 2007, in preparation for which the Whitehall team led focus groups and surveys to find out what people understood by the label. It turned out the majority of people thought ‘social mobility’ referred to public transport for people with disabilities.
Undeterred, the then Department of Children, Schools and Families devised a careers advice approach strategy to improve social mobility aimed at 14 year olds. Delivering it only revealed how much earlier than 14 children were deciding what was ‘for them’ and what wasn’t ‘for them’. Clever children from poor backgrounds knew they didn’t fancy university aged 9 or 10. Less clever children from richer backgrounds were also ruling out great vocational routes at that age, which would have allowed them to flourish. They believed higher education was the only route to status and success, and they were confident there would be a university place for them.
Several subsequent studies have shown conclusively (see Education Endowment Foundation and Sutton Trust) that the biggest influence on young people’s choices were people that they knew or admired. For university access initiatives this means that sending a black Etonian into a Hackney school doesn’t work. Kids are much less bothered about superficial markers of identity than adults. Accents, authenticity, and relatability matter a lot more than race or gender.
What does this mean for giving every child the greatest possible chance to be the authors of their own life story? Policymakers have adopted the phrase ‘social capital’ to describe the advantage you get from being surrounded by good people, mainly because it does indeed carry measurable economic benefit. We don’t always have to think and speak in such transactional terms though. It’s true that richer kids tend to have more options than poorer kids because they know a wider range of grown-ups who have done or are doing interesting things in their lives. But social capital doesn’t just mean that your parents have friends that can give you work experience. It means you’ve read books, and watched films, with cool characters that have got jobs or lives you might want when you grow up. It means you know how to ask and answer questions in situations that don’t involve your house or a classroom. It means you’ve been camping or climbed Snowdonia, or play in a band that gives you interesting stories to tell people. Social capital just means your life is full, and fun, and you are flourishing.
There isn’t a causal relationship between financial advantage and social capital; many of us grew up, and are still growing up, in houses that are fun- and love-rich, but cash-poor. There is a correlation though. It’s harder for single parents to fill their child’s life with interesting, inspiring activities and multiple role models. An effective approach to giving young people choice and options should focus as much on this as on ‘information, advice and guidance’. We could better afford and enable schools to do this by sweeping away the spaghetti junction of centrally led initiatives, websites, and advisers, and allow schools and colleges to devise a local approach that unlocks the skills and experience of each other and their neighbours: volunteers, employers, sports and arts groups.
Here are some practical ideas:
- Speakers for Schools: The simple but brilliant thing about Speakers for Schools is that it gives poorer kids access to insights and stories that their middle class friends already have. The behavioural science behind it recognises that people don’t decide which cool job they want, they decide what cool people they want to be, or lives they want. The challenge it faces is that a narrow set of grown-ups do it, from a narrow set of careers, and invariably the schools who sign up are the schools who least need it.
Scaling idea: we desperately need a Speakers for Schools programme for alternative provision (AP) schools, which doesn’t send Hermione Granger types to talk about the exams they took, but encourages people who perhaps left school at 16 and made their own way to a happy and successful life.
- Debating Matters: another simple but influential project in that the schools that are involved have a culture of debating which engages everyone, not just the academic pupils, in topics that explore the world of work in a tangential way – medical research ethics, contact sports, green energy and transport. The best thing about Debating Matters is that the three (or more) judges are adults who have nothing to do with the school. The debaters and their friends in the audience get to know them (and their CVs) throughout the stages of tournaments. Everyone values the relationships built, and the ongoing contact that inevitably materialises into career tips or support.
Scaling idea: we need big employers to find ways to get their employees doing things with schools and colleges like Debating Matters, where the careers advice is stealthy – a positive externality – not the transactional purpose. That’s how social capital is built.
- London Village Network: Catch22 is proud to be incubating this organisation led by Rachael Box, who founded it when she asked the boys who were smoking weed outside her daughters’ window what they were going to do with their lives. Rachael asked a few people she knew to come and give 20 minute talks about how they got into the job they were in, and the rest is history. She’s developed a digital platform through which anyone can ‘give an hour’, in an environment where the young people are already comfortable. It’s just old fashioned youth work, based on trust and relationships, but making use of new technology and the reality of modern lives.
Scaling idea: we need a Bridlington Village Network and a Norwich Village Network, and a Torbay Village Network – the potential is there, it’s the capability, confidence and courage of one or two leaders we need to nurture.
We have a Playbook at Catch22, which comprises a set of things our people apply to whatever they’re doing, wherever they are. ‘Relationships beat structures’ is one of our mantras, and another is ‘Don’t mandate mediocrity – unleash greatness’. That’s what we need to do to here. No more Whitehall social mobility units or careers strategies to mandate mediocrity – unleash local greatness instead.