Along with Claire Coutinho MP, David wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph launching their new Opportunity Gap project. The below article appeared on the Daily Telegraph on 20 May 2021.
Inequality of opportunity is the challenge of our time. While the narrative of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps alone is an attractive one, the fact is that most of us get help from somewhere at some point.
The Social Mobility Barometer this year found only 35 per cent of adults across the UK believe everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their hard work will take them. Where you live in the UK, who your parents are, the school you attend and the connections you have, they all have been shown to matter again and again.
In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission ranked areas of England from 1 to 324 on 16 indicators that help people have good educational and employment outcomes. It showed clearly that the gap in opportunities is not as simple as North versus South 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. Some of the places where poor children do worst at school are among the country’s most affluent areas.
Covid has thrown the disparity of opportunities into sharper relief. Young people have lost crucial time at schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace. They are entering a labour market that is shedding jobs in the sectors – from hospitality to retail – in which they often get their first foot on the ladder. More people working from home means young people starting their first jobs are missing out on learning vital soft skills from more senior colleagues.
But in many ways, Covid has not created new problems for young people. The well-publicised gaps in teaching time received or in access to digital devices during the pandemic reflect existing gaps between young people from low-income families and the rest that governments have worked to tackle for decades.
We have proven we can make progress. In the decade before the pandemic we saw record high youth employment, rocketing numbers of disadvantaged young people going to university, a huge increase in the number of apprentices and more children attending good or outstanding schools than ever before.
But now, in the face of the education and employment headwinds of Covid – and with innovation and automation set to drive a larger wedge between high and low skilled jobs – we need to renew our efforts to ensure your ability to get on in life is based on your talent and effort, not where you’re born or who your parents are.
The Government is putting billions of pounds into education catch-up, creating innovative employment programmes for 16-24 year olds, like the Kickstart Scheme, boosting traineeships and apprenticeship funding.
However, this is not just a job for Government. It’s a job for all of us – for our schools and colleges, our employers, our universities and the rest of civil society.
That’s why we have launched a new project, The Opportunity Gap, with the Social Market Foundation. We will be working with a wide-range of individuals and organisations to put forward evidence-based, practical recommendations to tackle the main drivers of the opportunity gap.
As we see it, there are several drivers, from the resources parents have – both financial and non-financial – to the quality of your school experience, whether good quality jobs and apprenticeships are available in your local area and the recruitment processes employers use, particularly in elite professions like law and medicine.
In our careers before we became MPs in 2019, we worked between us with parents, young people, schools, colleges and employers to provide opportunities to young people. Our passion for this is part of what drove us into politics. Alongside our recommendations, we intend to highlight where organisations are going above and beyond to help and call out those who should be doing more.
We all want a person’s own talents and efforts to be the key factors in determining where they end up in life, but we shouldn’t pretend that all of those who don’t get to where they want to just haven’t worked hard enough. For each person who makes it against the odds there are more whom the odds defeat. Demography shouldn’t be destiny. It is time to close the opportunity gap.
Claire Coutinho is Conservative MP for East Surrey and a Parliamentary Private Secretary to HM Treasury. David Johnston OBE is Conservative MP for Wantage, a member of the Education Committee and co-chair of the Social Mobility APPG.