Breaking through the glass ceiling

Posted by Baroness Tyler of Enfield On 2 March 2017

Too often, success in accessing our top professions is down to the lucky accident of birth. Too often, structural inequalities mean that young children find themselves imprisoned on an inescapable path. By the age of five, there is a clear academic attainment gap between children from rich and poor families. This increases throughout school, until by 18 the most advantaged teenagers are over six times as likely to attend one of the most selective universities. The benefits of being born to wealthy parents do not just accrue to the talented – in fact, less-able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor youngsters. The resultant domination of our top professions like medicine, law, finance and the arts by the well to do and independently educated in this day and age is frankly staggering.

The case for social mobility is not just a moral one. It also makes business sense. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2010 found that failing to improve low levels of social mobility will cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year by 2050 - or an additional 4% of Gross Domestic Product. Some top businesses understand this, and are working hard to widen access. However, more can be done across businesses, universities, schools and the government to improve social mobility.

The APPG on Social Mobility

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility, of which I am co-chair, ably supported by the Sutton Trust has recently completed a year- long Inquiry looking at how to increase access of people from disadvantaged backgrounds into leading professions.

The Inquiry looked at the causes and extent of the problem, investigated what is currently being done, and recommended tangible actions. We heard from a wide array of witnesses, from senior executives in law and accountancy, to young professionals who had been helped by outreach programmes. The sheer volume of reform, programmes and initiatives to widen access by various professions that the Inquiry identified offers some encouragement. However significant gaps remain. These gaps mean more must be done to widen access to elite professions on the part of schools, universities, businesses and the government.

The inquiry culminated in a report, entitled ‘The Class Ceiling’, which has six broad areas of recommendations and can be found in full at:

What Universities can do

There is room for Universities in particular to help improve social mobility. Disadvantaged young people are far less likely to enter higher education and significantly more unlikely to enter the most selective universities that leading professions tend to recruit from.

Contextual admissions are one way universities can help to improve social mobility, recognising that academic ability is just one crucial component of success in higher education. Children eligible for free school meals achieve grades 20-30% lower at GCSE. The odds are stacked against youngsters in underperforming schools from disadvantaged neighbourhoods achieving well at school. Universities, as well as firms, should take this into account when reviewing applicants, by using contextualised recruitment. This isn’t about penalising young people from wealthy backgrounds. It’s about taking all the relevant factors into account when evaluating a university application. If an applicant from the worst school in the country achieves the same grades as one from the best school in the country, they have demonstrated a greater level of self-motivation and resilience – valuable character traits. Looking at academic attainment in context allows universities to admit applicants with the greatest potential. Further, they should clearly publish information on the use of this contextual recruitment, so that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to apply. It is worth noting, for example, that all magic circle law firms now use the RARE contextualised recruitment service. Universities should consider following this lead.

A second key factor, where universities are in a fantastic position to take a lead, is raising the aspiration of disadvantaged young people. As the inquiry repeatedly heard, universities and firms can only admit those who apply. Too often talented applicants are not aware that they could enter the top institutions. Half of state schools in England have not had a single pupil that has even applied for medical school. This often speaks to a feeling that, particularly elite, universities are not for ‘people like us’. This is a misconception that can be countered with information, peer support and mentoring. I have seen some great work on outreach programmes and information days that universities hold with schools to overcome these sentiments. These programmes, as well as mentoring schemes to give disadvantaged young people role models to aspire towards, can be hugely beneficial. They should be expanded, and publicised more widely.

The report draws many more conclusions about the challenges involved in widening access to professions, and recommendations to overcome them. I urge you to read it in full. When we allow the lottery of birth to determine young people’s life chances we fail them. When we allow disadvantaged kids’ potential to go untapped we fail ourselves and everyone suffers. It needn’t be like this.