30 April 2018

‘From social capital to social mobility’ by Matt Lent

Our CEO, Matt Lent, writes about the value of building meaningful social capital networks for students and how we are incorporating this concept into our work…

Social capital

The networks between people and the relationships of trust and reciprocity they develop.

Social mobility

The ability of individuals or groups to move upward (or downward) in status, based on wealth, occupation, education, or other social variable. 

The vital difference for young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and ‘succeed’, versus those who don’t, is having access to relatable role models and meaningful social capital.

We all know that the UK has a serious social mobility problem, and that this has exacerbated over recent years. To effectively tackle this entrenched issue, it is vital that we look beyond the work of individual, short-term and standalone programmes, and think about how to create the systemic and structural change needed to significantly ‘move the needle’ on this complex and multi-faceted problem.

The reality is that while low social mobility is to a large degree a regional issue, and the Department of Education is right to target limited resources at particular areas where the problem is most deep-rooted, it is not just in the 12 opportunity areas that young people have low social mobility. Some of the richest places in England, such as West Berkshire and the Cotswolds, deliver worse outcomes for their disadvantaged young people than much poorer areas; across the UK, only 4% of doctors, 6% of barristers and 11% of journalists are from working-class backgrounds (State of the Nation report on social mobility in Great Britain, 2016); and not a single young person on free school meals from anywhere in the North of England went to Oxbridge last year.

Beyond school, most young people across society aren’t provided with any particular project or organisation to guide them, they don’t need or wish to comply to someone else’s pathway for their achievement and success, and yet, many (or indeed most) still manage to identify a potential job or career, create their journey, gain qualifications and subsequently employment and independence.  They understand the challenges they face, make up their own mind, and choose their own route.  But, and it’s a significant but, in almost every case they had access to something of incomparable value…meaningful social capital.   And here is the root of much of the social mobility problem today, put most simply, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

Drawing on my own personal experience, at the age of 18 I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, which isn’t unusual, but what I benefited from was a supportive and caring network that I was capable and willing to access.  I was exposed to a variety of options, potential pathways, and trusted adults, empowering me with choice and self-determinism.  This kind of social capital, for me and thousands of others, is what provides the stable foundations needed to work towards a career, independence and financial stability.  It was because of these informal support networks that I was able to identify and meet my personal challenges head-on, develop broad horizons, meet people in jobs to which I could realistically aspire, and be provided with a suite of apparently attainable options.  Despite not having any qualifications to speak of, I was given the motivation to succeed and the confidence to achieve, with the opportunities available to meet my raised aspirations.

The value of social capital

There is an ever increasing body of evidence on the importance of this kind of positive social capital.  A 2011 Australian study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, (Youth Transitions, Semo and Karmel) found that it plays a crucial role in influencing educational participation, over and above the effects of parental education and occupation, geographic location, cultural background and academic achievement.

In addition, as far back as 2002, OECD research stated that community networks are important determinants of learning outcomes and are beneficial in helping to overcome disadvantage (Fullarton, 2002). Positive community networks play a role in explaining why some people from disadvantaged groups can achieve educational success, while others who lack these support networks are more likely to fail (University of the Southbank, Holland 2009).  And ‘Education and Employers’ research (Anthony Mann, 2015) shows that young people who have four or more professional employer encounters while in education are five times more likely to transition to employment, education or training, and earn on average 16% more than their peers who did not have such opportunities.

There is also clear evidence that social capital has a positive impact on personal well-being, health, and crime rates (Helliwell and Putnam, 2004, Sampson, 2012), with benefits being felt by individuals and communities, nationally and even internationally.

In 2014 an Office for National Statistics paper, Measuring Social Capital, recognised that social capital is also associated with values such as tolerance, solidarity and trust. These are demonstrably beneficial traits for society and are vital for people to be able to effectively cooperate and collaborate in work environments and communities.

Additionally, social capital has been recognised as a significant driver of economic growth, resulting in greater economic efficiency (Putnam, 2000), and the importance of social capital was also acknowledged by the Bank of England governor Mark Carney in May 2014, who stated that ‘prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital’.

The risk for young people without productive social capital in their lives is clear.  A 2011 Princes Trust study, ‘Broke not Broken’, found that more than a quarter of young people from the poorest backgrounds believe that ‘people like me’ don’t succeed in life, and Future First research of the same year, ‘Social Mobility, Careers Advice & Alumni Networks’, found that half of students on free school meals don’t know anyone in a job that they would like to do.

Furthermore, a lack of positive role models and low social capital affects young people’s perception of their own ability and the extent to which they value their school work. (The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people – Institute of Education, 2013, and Non-Educational Barriers to the Elite Professions – Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, 2015)

Embedding and enabling social capital for young people

Given this, what we need is a means to give every young person access to the networks they can turn to when they need advice or guidance, or to have their aspirations raised and their horizons broadened, to tap into some help in opening doors, and to have access to relatable and positive role models who can show them that they too can succeed.  Networks of this kind allow young people the opportunity to identify their own prospects, to be empowered, enabled to make their own choices in life, able to fail and to learn safely, and find their own route towards their own definition of success.

There are of course tens of thousands of active networks out there, including school, college and university groups, formal professional networks and informal interest groups.  With each member of each network not just belonging to that group but potentially dozens of others, and each member of those groups are in dozens more. Everyone is connected, everyone has the potential to link with everyone else in about three or four steps, and with the proliferation of social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, this has been made even easier.  So rather than creating expensive new initiatives and programmes let’s take these incredibly powerful networked resources and create the means for all and any young people to tap into them in a straightforward manner.

By activating the natural social capital of state school and college alumni, and developing the means for teachers and pupils to access this incredibly valuable resource for a wide range of activity, it becomes possible to build a nationwide movement of sustainable networks between young people and professionals. Future First already has more than 226,000 state school alumni volunteers signed-up, and has so far supported over 1000 state-funded secondary schools and colleges to build active networks and positive relationships with their former students. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, Future First/You Gov 2011 polling found that more than 10 million British adults would be willing to support current students at their former state school or college.

Through this approach it’s possible to create new systematised frameworks for young people to benefit from their own social capital.  In 2017 alone, more than 11,500 Future First volunteers gave nearly 20,000 hours of time to meet and support 110,850 young people in their former school.  These volunteers represent 4,745 different employers, offering tens of thousands of young people access into a world to which they would not normally be exposed. Creating the opportunities for young people to find out about a variety of employment pathways and career options from relatable role models who have sat in the very same seats in which they are sitting today.

Future First knows this works, with 84% of young people saying that meeting alumni made them realise that ‘people like me’ can be successful, and 82% committing to working harder as a result of meeting former students. And staggeringly, 100% of school staff have told Future First that hearing from relatable role models in jobs, raised students’ motivation levels about their school work.

The true value of these networks however are only really realised when schools embed them into day-to-day life, engaging their alumni in teaching and learning, mentoring, pastoral support, work experience opportunities, presenting in assemblies, becoming governors, fundraising and much more.  This is the kind of activity that independent schools have done for centuries, and state schools are now starting to catch-up. And of course, when implemented well, these networks continue to thrive for young people beyond their schooling years.

What we should be striving towards is for every young person in every school and beyond to benefit from powerful networks and connections, to give them relatable role models, trusted mentors and meaningful social capital. And if, as is the case in independent schools, this becomes part and parcel of the fabric of school life and the state education sector as a whole, we will then be moving towards a point where every young person throughout the UK has both the means and the ability to tap into and benefit from the social capital they need in order to ensure that their future is not limited by their background.

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