Last week I launched a new project, the Opportunity Gap project, with my colleague Claire Coutinho and the think-tank the Social Market Foundation. My career prior to becoming an MP was entirely spent running organisations to help disadvantaged young people, supporting them with education and employment opportunities. The project will look at how best to close the gap in opportunities between young people in different parts of the country and from different social backgrounds.
In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission ranked the areas of England from 1 to 324 on 16 indicators that help people have good education and employment outcomes. It showed clearly that the gap in opportunities is not as simple as North versus South issue or London versus the rest. If you lived in Trafford (ranked 24) your chances of getting on in life were considerably better than if you lived in Oldham (ranked 252), a half an hour drive away.
More recently and much closer to home, this month’s Legatum Prosperity Index found that while the Vale of the White Horse and South Oxfordshire ranked 43rd and 46th overall across 12 pillars of prosperity, they ranked 157th and 246th respectively on the education measures.
The Opportunity Gap project will investigate what can be done across at least 6 of the drivers of the gap. One is the resources parents have – financial, yes, but also other resources that help them navigate the system.
Other drivers include the quality of education you receive, whether there are good jobs and apprenticeships available in your local area and what the recruitment processes employers use are i.e. do they judge potential to do the job or just your school grades and how polished you are?
Government has a key role to play in closing the opportunity gap but it is not just a job for Government. Indeed, looking only to Government is likely to let lots of other actors off the hook.
Universities are autonomous institutions and have a choice about whether they charge high fees for low contact time and poor graduate outcomes. Our employers should be investing in skills and working with young people to provide work experience to a wide range rather than just the children of their employees and clients. Being 24 times more likely to become a doctor if your parent is a doctor is not the result of a decision in Whitehall.
Contrary to the myth we sometimes tell ourselves, almost everyone succeeds because they get help from other people along the way rather than because they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We all have a role to play in closing the opportunity gap and particularly post-Covid, it’s vital that all we play it.