This morning’s report from the Social Mobility Commission made for depressing reading. The issue has been on the government agenda for decades but we have yet to see any real progress, especially with wages stagnating amid increases in the cost of living.
The report highlighted that, despite progress being made at primary level towards closing the attainment gap, at current rates it will still take 15 years before all children are school-ready by the age of five and 40 years before the attainment gap between the wealthiest children and those on free school meals at that age is closed.
At GCSE and A level, there is currently no prospect of the gap between free school meal and non-free school meal children being eliminated. In higher education, it will take 80 years before the gap is eliminated. This is a huge issue for our whole society, particularly in the midst of Brexit negotiations, when nurturing "homegrown" talent will become ever more critical to our nation's prosperity.
Younger people are acutely aware of this, perhaps reflected in the historically high voter turn-out earlier this month. They understand their prospects are worse than those of their parents and they rightly want change.
There are many areas the government should be looking at to tackle this. But in particular, I don't believe that we will improve social mobility while we continue to live such segregated lives. The social media bubble is often referred to, but we live our daily lives in a bubble, too – although not necessarily through choice.
The recent terror attacks and Grenfell Tower fire saw an incredible response from communities and volunteers. Britain has a strong history of communities coming together in the wake of disasters to help each other – I sit on the board of the Royal Voluntary Service, formed as WRVS in response to the domestic challenges of World War Two.
However, it shouldn’t take such terrible events for people to reach out to each other and help those most in need. We need to do this on a daily basis, and to help this become the norm there need to be opportunities to give back at all ages, stages and settings.
A helping hand
One example is giving young people the opportunity to make the transition from education to employment through giving their time to their local community, instead of perhaps going abroad. The charity I head up, City Year UK, engages dedicated and altruistic young people to volunteer full-time for a year in schools in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.
They make a huge difference to the pupils and, by serving as mentors, role models and tutors, the young volunteers themselves develop the leadership and resilience needed to continue to tackle the UK’s pressing social issues.
We are calling on the government to introduce legal recognition for those young people who volunteer full-time, as they are currently classified as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) – not a great way for their country to recognise their contribution.
I strongly believe that more full-time volunteering opportunities, open to all, and with structured support for volunteers, can play an increasing role in breaking down barriers between communities and make significant impact on pressing issues.
We’ve found that pupils in primary and secondary schools who receive mentoring and near-peer support improve their academic attainment, behaviour and future outlook. And the young people who give their time gain experience, skills and career prospects in the process.
The government’s review of full-time social action will present its findings later this year, and I really hope to see legal recognition for full-time volunteers as one of the recommendations.
Overall, the third sector has an important role to play through engaging people, particularly 18-24-year-olds, who are more likely than older generations to engage in volunteering – building on community ties, bridging social capital and playing their part in addressing the challenges outlined in today's social mobility report.
Sophie Livingstone is chief executive at City Year UK