If social mobility is a problem that needs solving, where does the focus of training and adult skills development really need to be?

In July 2021 the Social Mobility Commission published their report entitled ‘State of the Nation 2021: Social Mobility and the pandemic.’

Of particular interest are the Commission’s views and recommendations on what will aid social mobility and provide greater opportunities for those from a disadvantaged background.

What is social mobility?

Brittanica defines social mobility as the movement of individuals, families, or groups through a system of social hierarchy or stratification. They use the scenario of an industrial worker moving and in so doing, becoming a wealthy businessman as an example of someone achieving upward social mobility.

The Social Mobility Commission defines it as the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.

Is social mobility really a problem that needs solving?

The report starts by highlighting some thought-provoking and disturbing statistics. Nearly one in three children in the UK are living in poverty (that’s around 4.3m), while it is stated that disadvantaged children are behind their more privileged school colleagues by around seven months. The Commission also cites a disparity in unemployment over the past 18 months, with young, working-class males being disproportionately affected.

All indicators highlight that such issues existed before Covid-19 hit, though most have been exacerbated, thus leading to greater challenges. The report makes it clear that social mobility is a serious concern and one that requires well thought out responses. Without a cohesive and well invested response there is a significant risk that the challenges multiply and the potential that so many individuals hold is wasted. The impact that these individuals could make on society is lost and opportunities for humankind are missed.

It could be argued that social mobility is not vital, after all, if every industrial worker, whether it is refuse collector or warehouse operative, moved up the professional ladder, there would be no-one to provide the vital services we, as society, need. However, this is to take a simplistic view of social mobility. If we view the real challenge as giving everyone the chance to fulfil their potential then we are probably following a more realistic and worldly ideal. Those who have the appetite and willingness to work hard can, with the appropriate support, achieve their dreams and fulfil their potential. That potential doesn’t necessarily mean being a high-flying business person, it is about putting their talent and passions to good use, be it as a care worker, shelf stacker or international diplomat.

The challenge is not so much one of creating a homogenous cadre of professionals, instead it concerns how we go about ensuring everyone in society has the chance to succeed.

The Social Mobility Commission shares this view, stating that… “We want to make sure that potential and initiative matter more than your background or the place you grew up. To do this, we must remove the blockages, from birth to work, that hold back the most disadvantaged members of our society.”

If we view social mobility through this lens then surely the answer is yes, it is a problem that needs solving.

A raft of possibilities

There are many ways in which the challenge could be addressed and the report lays out a seven-point recovery plan. At a high level, the areas highlighted are difficult to argue with. Robust and well-planned responses in each area would, logically, lead to increased opportunity for the disadvantaged.

Seven key pillars for recovery

As always, the devil is in the detail however, and this is as true in the access to apprenticeship and adult skills development area as any other.

The suggested action plan recommends increasing the share of apprenticeships from disadvantaged backgrounds, making sure more get on to the higher levels.

In principle this aim, combined with the desire to improve access to skills, is sound. Greater access to apprenticeships and further progression will open more doors, as will the enhancement of any skill set.

On its own, however, it’s not enough. The focus has to be sound, with a broad curriculum covered.

Apprenticeships and professional development have typically focused on technical skills, with just a hint of soft skills. Until recently, it was not even mandated that behaviours were focused on in the apprenticeship market, let alone enforced.

With the new Ofsted standards for apprenticeships there is at least a recognition that the development of technical skills alone is not enough. It is now mandated that the 20% off-the-job training must include the development of behaviours and attitudes. Failure to deliver on this will result in down grading of training providers and therefore their ability to deliver and charge for this aspect of apprenticeship development.

Yet, the standard language revolving around technical skills and soft skills is too simplistic.

There is a fundamental need for training providers, employers and governing bodies to focus on the development of Character Qualities. The innate attributes that we all possess and that support everything we do.

Why Character?

We are all born with innate potential and, dependent on our upbringing and education, we will deliver on it to a greater or lesser extent.

Part of our success comes through our ability to complete certain tasks, such as building a car engine or producing a set of accounts (technical skills). It also depends on our ability to ‘get the job done’ by being a great leader, a strong communicator or fantastic team player (soft skills).

Access to training in these areas is vital to aid social mobility, but there is a missing link.

To be a great team player you need to be harmonious, collaborative, authentic and expressive (amongst others). To be a great mechanic you need to be curious, disciplined, analytical and practical (again, amongst others).

Disadvantaged people who optimise these Character traits will be far better equipped to deliver effectively in their profession and eliminate the gaps that exist between them and their more advantaged colleagues.

That is why a pure focus on technical and soft skills at the expense of Character Qualities would be a mistake.

Our plea therefore, is for law-makers, regulatory bodies, education providers and influencers to drive the inclusion of Character Qualities in any development framework.

If social mobility is to improve, then so must our behaviours because who we are and how we behave drives what we become.