ACCA at the conferences
Kicking off ACCA's series of UK party conference fringe meetings was a CentreForum/ACCA roundtable debate on breaking down barriers to social mobility. CentreForum's Anthony Rowlands was in the chair, with a panel made up of Nick Clegg's right-hand man Norman Lamb MP, ACCA's Neil Stevenson, CentreForum's Gill Wyness, and former teacher and academic John Howson.
The debate kicked off with a sobering assessment from Norman Lamb of the UK's current performance on social mobility – an issue that is a 'central priority' for Nick Clegg.
Lamb told the audience that an OECD study of 12 countries placed the UK at the bottom of the pile when it comes to social mobility; there are more British black men aged 18-20 in prison than there are at a Russell Group University; and that while from 2006-2010 the nearby borough of Sandwell had sent no school leavers to Oxbridge, Eton and Westminster schools had sent 394 and 310 school leavers to Oxbridge, respectively. For many in school, he argued, the assumption is that they cannot succeed.
The use of university statistics is fairly typical in any discussion of social mobility, and some at the fringe meeting queried this focus. John Howson and a Prince's Trust speaker from the audience both pointed out that debate tends to focus on young people that go the whole way through the system, from pre-school to university. What about those that want to leave school at 16?
ACCA's Neil Stevenson picked up on this point too, noting the availability of professional qualifications as an alternative to university qualifications. Stevenson said that the professions needed to do more to widen the recruitment pool for the professions – something being worked on by the multi-organisation coalition ‘Professions for Good’ – but that ACCA had always had a long tradition of removing barriers to entry to its qualification and ensuring open and fair access.
The 'university-only route' was not the only assumption challenged during the evening: how we see social mobility was questioned too. Is it about moving up a wage ladder, or is it about being able to do the job that you want to do, or that most suits your skills? In other words, is social mobility about wages or job satisfaction?
Here, all the panellists were somewhat united: it's about getting where you want to go, not about the wages. As Neil Stevenson said, social mobility should be about rewarding careers and giving young people the right tools and opportunities to achieve what they want to in life.
How to achieve this was naturally a topic for discussion too. Creating a school system that encourages aspiration and success was a common response, while Gill Wyness proposed a reform of superficial work experience opportunities in schools.
Lamb went through the steps that the Government is taking to address Britain's sluggish social mobility. He pointed out extra funding for early years care, the pupil premium, and more transparency at university level. Hinting at the importance of school reform, he added that for decades, our school system had failed to deliver opportunities for children.
While these measures won praise from some of those present, potential problems with them were raised by others. One audience member asked how the Government could tackle the problem of the importance of family support when it comes to future success.
Wyness applauded the Government's social mobility focus, but argued that the use of information and support was too passive: parent-support classes are now available, but might only attract those parents already engaged; plenty of university information on future wages and fees are available, but will only be found by those interested in going to university anyway. The Government is on the right lines, but needs to be bolder, said Wyness.
Finally, why does social mobility matter? Neil Stevenson argued that it can create much-needed diversity for businesses, but the final word goes to Norman Lamb. For the Lib Dem MP, it is 'morally wrong' that some children are not given the opportunity to make something of themselves. For him, promoting social mobility is central to what being a Lib Dem is all about.