With A-level and GCSE results out this week, it’s important to emphasise that talent is everywhere in our country – but that opportunity isn’t.
By Steve Murrells – Co-op CEO
For as long as I can remember, the social mobility agenda has been about supporting young people from under-privileged or deprived backgrounds into careers like the law or finance by supporting them through education and professional qualification. If you look at the Social Mobility Employer Index, published every year by the Social Mobility Foundation, you’ll see a proliferation of professional services, management consultancies and Government departments.
I think everyone agrees that this is a good thing and that we are immeasurably better as a society for increasing the proportion of people from different background in these professions.
But if that is all social mobility means then we have a problem. This kind of intervention can only ever help a small number of individuals, because there is only so much room at the top. Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t help communities; pursuing these kinds of careers usually means the individuals leaving the community that raised them to go to different cities. Too often it hollows out communities rather than enriching them.
That’s why this week, while I celebrate all those who did so well in their A-levels and GCSEs and are going on to the next phase of their academic journey, I am more focused on those whose circumstances mean they have not thrived. It is a stark fact that around a fifth of GCSE pupils in England did not achieve grade 4 (that is a C in old money!) in either English or Maths at GSCE – and that means they are locked out of many career pathways, including apprenticeships.
If we want to help those people, we have to get more serious about levelling up, looked at in a holistic way. What that means to me is individuals and communities prospering together – and to achieve that we need social mobility to impact not hundreds of people, but tens of thousands of people and their communities. We need not one young kid from a challenging estate to become a QC – although that would be great – but dozens of kids from that estate getting the skills to be successful in a range of jobs.
So I really worry when I see the falling numbers of those starting level 2 apprenticeships – that is the GCSE equivalent – and it has dropped every year since 2014/2015. It is these entry level jobs that can help create a better future for a broader range of people, allowing them to capitalise on their talents.
Businesses like the Co-op can provide a pathway for individuals from every community. At any one time, we have 1,000 apprentices in our stores, logistics teams and funeralcare homes and almost half are level 2 starts. We know that the thousands of apprentices we have had in our Co-op over the years have been not only fantastic for our business, but also for the communities that raised them, because they have tended to stay there and enrich them.
Our vision at the Co-op is Co-operating for a Fairer World and we know that when businesses come together we can help support communities to prosper. Earlier this year we created a scheme which has seen 28 businesses pledge almost £5m of unspent funds to create apprenticeships in SMEs across the UK… it’s already created more than 200 new apprenticeships, giving those people the chance to get on and realise their potential.
We are waiting for a Levelling-Up White Paper in the coming months and I hope we see a plan which is about making sure that opportunities are there for everyone to be as good as their talent allows. A plan where individuals can flourish AND which helps communities prosper together so no one gets left behind.
For that we will need co-operation between government, businesses and communities.
I am up for that.