To renew its promise to young people, Britain requires a new answer to its social mobility crisis, argues Seema Malhotra
The Social Mobility Commission’s annual State of the Nation report at the end of last year confirmed what we all know – that Britain has a deep social mobility problem.
According to the report, only one in eight children from a low-income background is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult. Just five per cent of children eligible for free school meals gain five A grades at GCSE. Young people from low-income homes with similar GCSEs to their better-off classmates are one-third more likely to drop out of education at 16.
Research shows the underachievement of the most vulnerable in our society is not because they have less capability but fewer resources – whether that is financial, emotional, physical or other resources that many take for granted.
There is no doubt that government cuts to school and community services have made things worse. Approximately seven out of 10 of Hounslow’s population – the borough I represent – live in areas more deprived than the national median. Yet our council has had its budget cut by 60 per cent in the last seven years.
What the future holds for our young people is a pressing issue. A fifth of our population is under 15 – in the top 10 per cent of constituencies for young people. Three facts have shocked me and have been the driving force behind our work. One, more than a third of young people across the country and in our local area are leaving school without the equivalent of five good GCSEs. In Hounslow that’s around 900 kids every year. Two, one of our wards – Feltham West, on the edge of Heathrow – is one of the lowest ranking wards in the country for sending young people to university. Three, we have seen a rise in crime involving young people – another sign of young lives being blighted.
We have a serious problem. And schools cannot deal with it on their own.
My conversations with headteachers have brought to the fore some devastating themes of poverty and its impact in particular on children. A picture emerges of families struggling to make ends meet, of not being able to always afford food. Of parental debt levels rising and parents having to borrow money for school uniforms and shoes. Of challenges in housing, such as overcrowding and damp conditions, which affect children’s ability to study and parent’s ability to work. Of a rise in mental health issues among children – with more referrals than ever before in primary and secondary schools – and our most troubled families simply not getting the support they need.
Now, these problems have not appeared overnight but they are being compounded by the pressures from government cuts and the scarcity of resources available to support families today.
Teacher and staff numbers are set to drop. This makes it even harder hard to keep vulnerable children engaged in education, who research shows benefit from a rich and varied curriculum.
Against this backdrop, how we grow and share prosperity becomes ever more urgent. How do we stop rising poverty becoming further entrenched. To embark on new thinking, we met with local schools and charities, studied reports on social mobility, the work on poverty by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, held roundtables with stakeholders and businesses. The work led to an unexpected partnership with the Legatum Institute that publishes a global prosperity index. An important story emerged linking three pillars of prosperity – economic outcomes, the education system and social capital.
Prosperity invariably depends on a good education. Furthermore, schools do best when they are well-connected into the community around them and social capital is strong. Yet too many schools feel they lack the resources and relationships to make that a reality. We need to strengthen our communities and engage the community around our schools to work in partnership and focus on young people’s wellbeing and attainment. To coin a phrase – it takes a village to raise a child.
We combined these insights with research undertaken with local young people through the youth advisory board we had set up in the constituency. Young people had a strong sense of ambition, but did not know how to structure or achieve their goals. They felt they were growing up in an environment where young people were seen as a ‘problem’. Many young people they knew gave up before they got started, or left school after 16 because they could not see where further education would take them.
Around the same time I came across America’s Promise – which was founded 20 years ago by former United States secretary of state Colin Powell and his wife Alma Powell. The word ‘promise’ had been inspired by Martin Luther King’s call to make real the promise of a nation to all generations. Action is driven through promises made and kept to young people. The project has been supported by all US presidents since its foundation.
Guided by the America’s Promise team, we began to develop our own thinking. In January this year, supported by schools, businesses, young people and the local council, we launched Hounslow’s Promise.
Hounslow’s Promise is based on five promises we make as a community to our young people. It is the plan through which we seek to improve educational attainment, employability, and social mobility. These are: Promise one – A network of caring adults helping build bridges between the generations and together helping nurture our young people; Promise two – Safe places and facilities where young people can develop – online or offline; Promise three – Support for teachers to keep alive their passion for their subject and deliver a strong and effective education; Promise four – A healthy start, so our children do not suffer hunger or poor nutrition; Promise five – Youth leadership, building character and the chance to become active citizens.
While success is to do with resources, it is not just about government. It is about bringing together people, and bringing together people to care. Behind each promise we are developing targets and a set of projects with other organisations inside and outside the local community and bringing best practice from across the country.
In April we also launched our flagship two-step community mentoring scheme pilot – where we are asking adults from across the community to become mentors to young people aged 14-17 – who in turn are being trained to mentor younger children aged 11-13.
As children form their dreams with a network of caring adults behind them, we want them to believe that no profession is out of reach.
The experience from America’s Promise, where their work has made a 10 percentage point difference on education attainment, shows what can be done. Sometimes the smallest touches can make the biggest difference – for example, community dads at the school gates. They smile at the kids who may not have been smiled at that morning – walk them to cafeteria to get breakfast and chat to the kids in home room before classes begin. It is a type of magic – recreating communities as we used to know them, and strengthening bonds between the generations.
Each step of the way Hounslow’s Promise is being led by and with young people. Local young people developed the Hounslow’s Promise logo at the Saturday morning arts club at Cranford. The logo symbolises the helping hand between adults and children, and the promise we make to young people. The sapling that symbolises a young life growing and breaking free.
Young people managed the launch event. They sit on our advisory board which is made up of around 50 per cent local leaders and 50 per cent external. Our board includes headteachers, the local chamber of commerce, community groups, and senior leaders from other professions with experience of national boards. The project is incubated at one of our local secondary schools – Cranford Community College – embedding the project in the local community.
At the heart of our vision is the desire to help young people flourish and fulfil their hopes.
The project is ambitious and long-term. Over the next three years we plan to extend mentoring, bring in reading projects, improve enterprise education, develop creativity, build community leadership and volunteering, set up masterclasses with journalists, judiciary, business leaders and artists, support healthy eating and introduce mindfulness into schools. It is also about integrating and channeling community assets through common purpose into improving education attainment and employability of our young people. Social mobility is not a silo issue – it is not the preserve of one department alone.
Hounslow’s Promise is a story which is still unfolding but we are proud of its beginning. Britain – led by Labour in town and city halls while the Tories will not – should follow suit. Our young people deserve it.
Seema Malhotra is member of parliament for Feltham and Heston. She tweets at @SeemaMalhotra1