I don’t doubt that Commons Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon is a good man and that his concern to promote social mobility is sincere and well-motivated. Equally, one must agree that former Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission chair Alan Milburn has been tireless and genuine in his pursuit of the same agenda. Improving social mobility seems to be one goal around which politicians of all parties can display a welcome unity.
There is a similar consensus about the way to achieve such an increase. Education is regularly quoted as being “key” or “central” to social mobility. The previous education secretary, Justine Greening, was reported to be passionate about it, and produced a social-mobility action plan. As reported in Tes, the issue will continue to be a top priority under her successor, Damian Hinds (“Social mobility key priority for DfE under Damian Hinds”, Tes, 29 January).
Nor is this enthusiasm confined to politicians. The Social Market Foundation thinktank entered the debate last year, arguing that “FE is key to social mobility in Brexit Britain”. The Economic and Social Research Council has published a briefing paper under the title Education Vital for Social Mobility. The Sutton Trust, meanwhile, was founded specifically to “improve social mobility through education”.
When well-meaning heavyweights on the right and left of politics, as well as a raft of thinktanks, are agreed on something, it is difficult to resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon. The Association of Colleges therefore argues that “colleges are drivers of social mobility”, while the Learning and Work Institute stakes the same claim for adult education. In such a context, it may be difficult – and indeed unpopular – to point out that it actually pulls the FE system in the wrong direction. But we need to be clear that this is exactly what it does.
A focus on social mobility inevitably emphasises the selective function of education. Institutions and qualifications are judged by how well they can facilitate access to the top universities and top jobs, not how well they prepare people for ordinary working life.
Anyone who doubts this should look at the current debate around T levels. There is a demand for them to have “parity of esteem” with A levels, for them to give access to the “best” universities, and to have sufficient Ucas points. Yet, to compete in this way means they would need to look more and more like the A-level route, thus distorting their original purpose while always being second best. Vocational qualifications are continually forced into a race they cannot win.
The pressure to increase social mobility is intensified by the fact that our society is becoming increasingly unequal, with many middle-ranking jobs becoming more precarious and poorly paid. It makes both moral and economic sense to allocate the relatively fixed number of top jobs more fairly. But the currently widening level of inequality places increasing pressure on individuals and families to join the competition for those jobs rather than settle for something less prestigious.
This, however, has all the makings of a vicious circle. People are less keen to take up vocational programmes at levels 3-5 because they are a less-certain route to top jobs. At the same time, the programmes themselves risk becoming less relevant to employment as they chase parity of esteem and ape the academic route. Employers, faced with a shortage of both relevant qualifications and good candidates choosing to take them, can’t be blamed if they adopt low-skilled, low-productivity business models and recruit to senior roles from those following the academic route.
Reshaping the market
The alternative to a focus on social mobility is a focus on increasing the number of good jobs. If middle-order jobs were more secure and satisfying, there would be less pressure to join the race for the few top positions and more people would opt for good-quality vocational education at levels 3, 4 and 5.
High-quality FE, including perhaps redesigned qualifications, could be an important part of building such a virtuous circle, but it should not be the key. Action has to be taken to reshape the labour market first.
Some elements of an industrial strategy could lead in the right direction, though they are mostly lacking from the one published by the government in November. They include an emphasis on skills utilisation, as well as skills development. Minimum-wage legislation can make a low-skill, low-productivity, low-wage business model less viable, as could firmer action to minimise the abuses of zero-hours contracts and pseudo self-employment.
The apprenticeship levy could be another lever, particularly if freed from the foolish target of 3 million starts, and assuming firm action was taken to minimise “deadweight” (rebadging training that would have been carried out anyway). On the other hand, simply calling people “snobbish” for having high aspirations will achieve nothing.
The key point is that FE cannot drive this change and the sector should not pretend that it can. The message to government should be that the FE system is ready and able to respond whenever there is a demand for good-quality vocational education from individuals and employers at any level. The test of its success should be whether it helps ordinary people do ordinary jobs better, and whether it helps employers create and sustain good jobs, not whether it gets a few into Oxbridge.
Further reform of vocational qualifications by itself won’t bring about good jobs; a focus on social mobility actually gets in the way.
Mick Fletcher is a researcher and writer on FE policy. He is a member of the Policy Consortium