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The long shadow of deprivation

A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission finds that social mobility in the UK is a postcode lottery

Increasing social mobility has long been a priority for various governments and has been invested in heavily over the last 10 years. The Uni Connect programme is one such result of this subsequent funding and has been successful in its raising awareness of higher education (HE) options in young people across the country.

Uni Connect is funded by the Office for Students (OfS) and is focused on providing HE outreach to young people living in particular geographical areas where HE participation is lower than might be expected given their GCSE results. Uni Connect has been questioned in the past on its geographic-based approach, targeting young people on their postcode instead of other determinants of ‘disadvantage’. New research now shines a light on why a geographic-based approach for social mobility is so vital.

In September 2020, the Social Mobility Commission published ‘The long shadow of deprivation: Differences in opportunities across England’, exploring how levels of pay vary considerably between areas in the UK. The report finds that rather than an obvious North-South divide, instead, areas of high or low social mobility are what affect individuals’ life outcomes despite high levels of education.

The report highlights that people growing up in the same area can have vastly different outcomes even when achieving the same level of education. However, in areas of high social mobility, this gap is considerably smaller and a key determinant in levelling outcomes.

Two young people in a high social mobility area would end up earning similar amounts once they’ve left education, regardless of their families’ wealth. Put those two same students in a low social mobility area, and they will have very different outcomes. In these areas, family circumstances have a substantial impact on success over education provision.

The report draws attention to areas which support the work of Uni Connect, and suggest potential areas of interest for the future.

education drives opportunities

Education remains a key driver for gaps in earning between people from disadvantaged and affluent families, accounting for almost 80% of the difference. Across the country those from less disadvantaged families perform better in school, but the level of this difference varies depending on the exact location, especially with regards to social mobility provision. In areas with higher levels of social mobility, the level of education accounts for almost all the varieties in pay. In areas with lower levels, education alone isn’t sufficient.

education alone isn’t enough

Despite the importance of education there is a complex mix of factors that affect social mobility and although education is the one constant it can’t solve everything in isolation. In areas of high deprivation there is often a lack of higher paid work, training opportunities and managerial positions. In these situations, many will seek opportunities elsewhere and this is where affluent families have an advantage. Without the financial backing to move to another city many are stuck in an area with less opportunities. Despite an equal level of education, those without financial security can’t take advantage of riskier opportunities.

In areas of low opportunity, the power of family ties also becomes increasingly important, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ becomes a more apt phrase.

Sons from deprived backgrounds may lack family connections that help them to learn about and gain good jobs. They may lack examples within their immediate network of the diversity of jobs available, or they may lack knowledge of the differentials in income and life quality between different jobs or industries. This can leave young people from deprived backgrounds with a smaller frame of reference from which to develop and make choices.

A geographical-based approach is necessary to tackle the long shadow of deprivation

In areas of high mobility, location is less important, education is everything. In areas of low mobility, a good education and a strong labour market is needed, this is where further work needs to be done.

Uni Connect is unique in its ways of promoting HE in that it takes a place based and impartial approach. Uni Connect works with schools to promote HE, in all its forms, to students from geographical areas that attain well at GCSE’s but fail to take education further.

This report reinforces the need for projects such as Uni Connect to continue to widen participation to education. Education remains the number one factor in social mobility and in areas of high social mobility it is the key to levelling outcomes. In areas of higher deprivation, it becomes more complicated. Education is still hugely important, but we now need to look further into the labour market and raising opportunities in the surrounding areas.