Time to make the old school tie work for the majority

by Hazel Blears

Last week I co-sponsored a debate in Westminster Hall on the topic of social mobility. For those not familiar, Westminster Hall is the “parallel chamber” that the last Labour Government created in 1999 to extend the provision for debate in Parliament, and to give MPs opportunities to discuss a wider range of topics.

Social mobility, as Damian Hinds MP – chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on social mobility – rightly noted in his speech, can mean entirely different things to different people, and for that reason is often not easily quantified. However it is clear from the statistics that do exist that the United Kingdom is lagging behind other OECD counties when it comes to social mobility – in short, people from poorer backgrounds do not have the same opportunities to succeed.

This is a problem that is increasingly on the political agenda, and indeed has not been properly addressed by any government. Part of the reason for this failure is that too often politicians are afraid of innovative projects where success cannot be directly linked to the funding allocated. But at times when money is limited, it is crucial that politicians and decision makers think outside the box.

When in government, I was struck when told that seven out of ten people get their next job through somebody they know. Networks and contacts can offer people far more hope of employment than job centres, which means that there needs to be a far greater focus in helping people develop relationships and expand their contact books.

I spoke in the debate about the Speaker’s parliamentary placements scheme, the cross-party paid internships scheme I have created which gives people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to work in parliament. Not only do those who take part get the chance to see firsthand how parliament works, they are also able to use their time in London to develop their contacts which will stand them in good stead as they look for their next jobs.

I also highlighted a project I have been running locally in Salford – Kids Without Connections. Over the past year so many young people in Salford and Eccles have shared with me their frustrations when applying for jobs; many jobs demand prior experience, but getting that experience is often difficult.

To help, I wrote to a number of Salford businesses, and 70 employers have now registered to give young people short work experience placements this summer. 150 young people have volunteered, and we have already had real jobs offered as a result of the programme.

Finally, I recently had the opportunity to meet with Future First, an organisation that is trying to establish alumni networks for state schools. They track former pupils using social networks such as Facebook to see if they would be willing to go back to their old schools and offer advice. 30% of former pupils have shown an interest, which means there is potential for up to 10million people to go back and offer their experience to the next generation. Pupils have told Future First that they think this would be incredibly useful as a supplement to traditional careers advice.

Each of these three schemes aims to give young people the chance to make the contacts and immerse themselves in the networks that will help them to find their next job. The importance of building relationships cannot be overstated, but many people from poorer backgrounds simply don’t have the contacts they need to continue their career development. These three schemes challenge that status quo.

People from well-off backgrounds often don’t have the same problems getting a foot through the door: they might be able to take an unpaid internship, living and working for free in London; they can often rely on the networks their parents have already developed to get work experience, often leading to a job; and at many private schools alumni networks are established, so they get to hear firsthand about what life is like in the world of work.

Improving social mobility isn’t about and must not be about punishing the “haves,” but about extending the same opportunities to the “have-nots.” It is extremely worrying that in this day and age so much of a person’s future can be directly linked to their parent’s background. For too many people their aspirations are unattainable, often because they don’t know the right people, they don’t move in the right crowds, or they have the wrong accent. They need help to get onto the ladder, and each party should seriously consider what form that help should take.

The other main point I made was that people develop at different ages, and many from disadvantaged backgrounds have not had the chance to go to university. It is promising that Alan Milburn’s recent report found that more businesses are creating non-graduate entry routes, and this is a trend that needs to continue to allow those whose talents don’t materialise until after education to flourish.

It was however noted in the debate that “university is the most important swing factor of achievements in later life.” Given the importance that attending university has on improving social mobility, it is therefore all the more frustrating that this government has chosen to abolish the educational maintenance allowance (EMA) which helps people from disadvantaged backgrounds stay on in post-16 education as a step towards going to university, as well as choosing to triple tuition fees which now act as a huge barrier and are turning people away from university. They have chosen to kick the ladders of opportunity away from thousands of young people.

Improving social mobility is not something that can be solved overnight – it needs time, commitment and patience. It was positive to see MPs from all parties discuss social mobility, offering their own experiences as well as policies to help the next generation. It is encouraging that there are MPs who are committed to shattering the glass ceiling, but all of the rhetoric around social mobility is meaningless unless it is backed up by effective policy making. Now is the time to transform words into action.

Hazel Blears is MP for Salford and Eccles

Tags: , , ,

9 Responses to “Time to make the old school tie work for the majority”

  1. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    To make ‘the old school tie’ work for all must mean having the same school tie surely? Something we can never achieve whilst we continue to maintain an elitist education system. To eliminate educational elitism we must eradicate private & independent education or at the very least cut any state subsidies currently in place through tax avoidance, incentives or charitable status. We must put in place admission policy that achieves broad socioeconomic mix in every school. And finally, we need a education system that promotes & enables equal educational standards in all our schools.

    And this is not about punishing the ‘haves’ but achieving a level playing field.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    As much as I agree with the sentiment of this article that enhancing the equality of opportunities for all people is an important and worthwhile cause; I am not sure that you can necessarily take a statistic such as “seven out of ten people get their next job through somebody they know” and extrapolate this to “Networks and contacts can offer people far more hope of employment than job centres, which means that there needs to be a far greater focus in helping people develop relationships and expand their contact books.” The people who find a next job through a contact are proably already in work and their next job will probably be in a similar field with someone they’ve met through work. This method will therefore not be effective for people who are long-term unemployed; it will also probably not be appropriate for most people who have been made unemployed as that field of employment in that area will be depressed. In addition, although I am against the old boys network and similar forms of nepotism, the statement that “seven out of ten people get their next job through somebody they know” indicates that this clearly isn’t an issue confined to the public school network and the allusion to the old school tie is therefore not helpful to your cause.
    A properly supported, properly administered schools careers service would seem to suit your objective’s best. I believe that Connexions – the 16-25 careers service – has been subject to funding cuts by the government and for a long-time the schools careers service has been woeful. I can remember seeing a “careers advisor” at school and it was a waste of time. I agree with the point that getting former pupils and local businesses involved with school pupils and careers assemblies are a good way forward. That is what Unviersity careers services do and they do it better than the schools service did (at least when I was at school). Unfortunately for schools SME’s are reluctant to help, as they are struggling to survive financially, unless the MD is particularly charitable.

  3. Nick says:

    t is extremely worrying that in this day and age so much of a person’s future can be directly linked to their parent’s background.


    They have been failed by schools. Teachers claim teaching makes all the difference, except when it goes wrong and they blame the parents, or the economy, ie. Any excuse.

    If you can’t get 5 GCSEs you’ve been failed by schools. That is pretty much going to be the end of social mobility.

    Look around your shadow cabinet. Public school profilerates. Why doesn’t Labour ban those who’ve had a public school education, or MPs who use private schools from their Party?

    Ah yes, that’s for others not you. Some are more equal that others.

  4. Robin Thorpe says:


    why must you always be so negative and so aggressive. A good teacher does make a huge difference; it does not however follow that a bad teacher will destry a child’s education. A child will be taught by many teachers throughout their time at school, however they will only have one set of parents. A good or bad school is not the be all and end all of education. The parents are the single biggest influence and can help a child achieve in spite of a bad school and will hinder a child at a good school. I’m not saying that schools can abrogate their responsibility; a good education is undeniably the single most significant factor in enhancing life chances and schools are key to this, but parents must recognise that education is a partnership between home and school.

    Nick+Simon, I don’t think a ban on private education or on potential politicians who have had a private education is a very democratic option. I do agree that private schools should not receive charitable status and the tax benefits that go with this.

  5. Anon E Mouse says:

    When you consider the amount of Labour MP’s that were educated in grammar schools it’s a shame this woman doesn’t advocate their re-introduction.

    Still as usual it’s one rule for them….

  6. Robin Thorpe says:

    Anon E Mouse,

    I agree with you that grammar schools are excellent educational establishments; I went to a grammar school and do feel privileged. The problem with grammar schools, and I am sure that the Labour MPs who also attended grammar schools would agree, is that they undoubtedly create a two-tier system. This was evident in the town where I went to school. Excluding 90% of children from an academic system at 11 does not accord with equal opportunities for all.
    I left my grammar school at 16 to go to a mixed-ability sixth form college in a different town; I was much happier in this environment and the excellent principal was an inspiration for many young people.
    My wife went to an excellent comprehensive school in a town where two schools were, and still are, of the highest standard. The comprehensive system does not mean teaching to a median level and streaming for ability within a school does not replicate the two-tier system, as every child has the opportunity to move within the sets throughout their time at school.

  7. swatantra says:

    Grammar schools inevitably means returning to the 11+ and coralling kids into winners and losers; thats pretty tough to take at a young age. and once you’re on the track of the Sec Mod its a bit difficult to get off; you inevitably get shunted along into less academic work and the culture and peer pressures and social and family pressures mean aspiration is stifled. Unless of course you are spirited enough to break loose.
    Of course those with money will get their kids in prep schools crammers and even if they end up in th 6th Form Remove, can still use their connections and friendsips made at public school to ease them into well paid and not so demaning jobs.
    For the 80% opportunities are cloed down, they don’t make it that easily to university. But having said that University isn’t the be all and the end all of everything, there is the university of life and paricularly if the choose business or become an entrepreneur then you can succeed and command some degree of wealth. Failure in business can be used to learn from your mistakes and succeed at your next venture. And Money and Wealth is the great leveller.
    What Hazel is advocating is that we get more people from different backgrounds into the professions like the Law and Politics and Engineering etc, so that the professions themselves don’t become so inbred with people from the same class that progress is stifled. WE livein a competitive wold and we need the best minds in the top jobs and not tossed aide at the age of 11.

  8. Matthew J says:

    Simon Christopher-Chambers – the worst thing we could do in the UK is try to fix a sub-par education system by scrapping the one world class part of it. Private schools provide a standard which others schools need to meet and if we are to have more social mobility then other schools need to be as good as them.

  9. Anon E Mouse says:

    Robin Thorpe

    There is already a two tier system but instead of being based on the intellectual or practical abilities of a child it is based on money. Labour should be screaming about this but they’re not bothered it seems.

    Parents with money can live in a good area with good schools, grammar or otherwise, or they can pay for their offspring to be educated privately.

    What annoys me is that people such as swatantra above seem to think that it is acceptable for Labour supporters to believe that children perhaps more suited to practical careers – engineers, electricians, plumbers etc are of lower worth than those who have done something like a PPE course at university.

    Which is why he has the arrogance to call them “losers”. Perhaps he would like to explain to the steel workers and miners of old how far Labour, the party of the rich has come.

    As a so called party that represents the working man can someone here please tell me why you think a plumber is not as worthy as some university educated wonk who goes from university to work for an MP for example. And then ends up leading Labour with his inheritance tax avoidance wheeze and his £million house in Primrose Hill.

    There was a time that Labour wouldn’t have rewarded the greedy bankers, city slickers and spivs like no government in history but it seems those days are long gone.

    When Labour gets it’s soul back and stops relying on tax avoiding minority newspapers like the Guardian for it’s support please let everybody know and perhaps normal people will vote for them again….

Leave a Reply