Social Mobility: Ending the opportunity gap

5 February 2018

Tackling burning injustices was Theresa May’s call to arms when she became Prime Minister. Learning and Work Institute analysis shows that chances in life are still unfairly distributed. There are too many opportunity ‘not spots’ across England, and an urgent need to build a better learning and skills system for adults.

Low social mobility is a burning injustice

Social mobility (or social justice, life chances, fairness) ultimately comes down to the extent to which your chances in life are dependent on your background. Can you get anywhere your efforts and talents will take you, regardless of background?

On this measure the UK doesn’t do well. There is a stronger link between adults’ income and those of their parents than in many other countries and this link appears to have strengthened over time. A significant proportion of this ‘stickiness’ is due to education. People’s educational attainment is closely linked to their parents’ education, and this then affects their opportunities in the labour market. If you are born to parents who gained fewer qualifications at school, you are likely to gain fewer qualifications and earn less as an adult.

This has two profound implications. Firstly for fairness, it is surely a ‘burning injustice’ that your life chances are strongly dependent on your background.

Secondly for economic prosperity. A US study shows people from poorer areas who get better maths grades are no more likely to file patents than people from better off areas who get worse maths grades. It memorably calls these Lost Einsteins. Here in the UK, how many Einsteins, Beethovens, Dysons, Berners-Lees and more have we lost, purely because of background? If we want to grow as a country, and cut our productivity gap with other countries, we need to utilise the talents of everyone.

Opportunity ‘not spots’

So how can we improve social mobility?

The UK’s poor skills base is one of the factors holding back productivity and social mobility. Nine million adults lack functional literacy and numeracy skills and our intermediate skills base lags behind many comparator countries. On most international league tables, we are closer to being relegation candidates than challenging for the title.

The Government’s general focus is on improving educational attainment, reforms of technical education, and expansion of apprenticeships. These could boost social mobility and productivity, and are supported by the highest employment rate (75%) on record. The flipside is that we are on track for the worst decade for growth in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars. Cuts in funding for Further Education since 2010 mean there are around one million fewer adults participating in government-funded learning than five years ago, with sharp falls in literacy, numeracy and community learning.

Part of the Government’s answer to targeting support and boosting social mobility has been to improve education for young people. This includes the designation of twelve Opportunity Areas across England, where analysis shows a shortfall in opportunities and outcomes. This has been backed by some (limited) funding and action plans.

However, there is little mention in these plans of adults. This matters for two reasons. The first is that every generation deserves a fair chance in life – we shouldn’t simply write off every generation that has left compulsory education. The second is that helping parents helps young people. So action to help adults has a double dividend.

Learning and Work Institute analysis shows Opportunity Areas are too often opportunity ‘not spots’ for adults. Adults in most opportunity areas have poorer outcomes for employment, pay, qualifications, and participation in higher education than the England average. Figure 1 summarises this, with red showing worse outcomes in that area than the national average, and green better.


Figure 1. Opportunity Area data for adults


Many Opportunity Areas have higher than average participation in apprenticeships. This shows that efforts to improve the quality of apprenticeships and fairness of access to them will have a disproportionate impact in these parts of England.

Learning and Work Institute also analysed changes over time. Figure 2 shows employment growth (x axis) mapped against apprenticeship growth (y axis) over the last five years. Opportunity Areas are in red, other Local Authorities in England are in blue. Overall, Opportunity Areas have neither disproportionately benefited from employment and apprenticeship growth, nor missed out. Only six of twelve Opportunity Areas had above average employment growth. This means relatively limited progress in closing opportunity gaps.


Figure 2. Local Authority growth in employment and apprenticeships


What can we do about it?

There isn’t an easy answer to this complex challenge. However, improving learning and work opportunities for adults has to be central to improving the life chances of adults and young people.

Here we highlight five priorities:

  1. Ambition & fair investment

There are one million fewer adults in publicly funded learning than in 2010, a result of sharp reductions in public investment. Young people attending Further Education and adults wanting to learn recieve lower investment per person than schools and universities. We need to invest more in learning for adults and ensure a level playing field for funding – whatever route people take – and a national strategy to increase adults’ participation in learning.

  1. Flexibility

Too often we ask people to fit into government systems, rather than vice versa. We need far more flexibility. Many people and employers want modules of learning, but Advanced Learner Loans ,which offer support with the costs, don’t cover these, only full qualifications. Tuition fee and maintenance loan support is available for young people undertaking higher education, but much reduced for adults wanting to return to study and for part-time learners. Higher education shouldn’t be a one shot chance at a full time degree at age 18. The forthcoming Government review of university funding and student finance needs to address this.

  1. Clear technical and vocational routes

Expansion of apprenticeships and technical education reforms are welcome. However, they do not build into a clear set of pathways. We also need high quality careers advice for adults, and a relentless focus on quality. It is unacceptable that 41% of apprenticeship providers are judged by Ofsted as needing improvement or inadequate. There would be an outcry if this was the case at 41% of schools.

  1. Widening employment opportunity

The expansion of employment has disproportionately benefited lower income households in recent years. However, our analysis shows some groups and parts of the country still missing out. We have previously argued Local Authorities can have a greater leadership role to align and integrate funding, policy and delivery.

  1. Careers and progression advice

Of every four people low paid ten years ago, three are still low paid today. We have called for a reversal of cuts to Universal Credit (compared to tax credits). Beyond this, we want more support for people on low pay so they can progress and boost their careers. Our evaluation of West London’s Skills Escalator showed access to a personal advisor and bespoke support helped people to increase their earnings. That’s why we’ve previously called for a Progression Service focused on helping people on low incomes to get on as part of a revitalised careers service.


Improving social mobility and increasing prosperity can go hand in hand. To do so requires a bigger focus on learning and work opportunities for adults, as well as improving education for young people. Taken together, these can be the building blocks of an ambitious plan to tackle burning injustice.