Social mobility needs more than paid internships

It's not just about providing the right footholds...

The UK Government recently released Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility.

The report quotes some depressing statistics about social mobility in the UK.

  • Only one in five young people from the poorest families achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with three quarters from the richest families.
  • 25% of children from poor backgrounds fail to meet the expected attainment level at the end of primary school, compared to 3% from affluent backgrounds.
  • Almost one in five children receive free school meals, yet this group accounts for fewer than one in a hundred Oxbridge students.
  • Only a quarter of boys from working-class backgrounds get middle-class (professional or managerial) jobs.
  • Just one in nine of those with parents from low income backgrounds reach the top income quartile, whereas almost half of those with parents in the top income quartile stay there.
  • Only 7% of the population attend independent schools, but the privately educated account for more than half of the top level of most professions, including 70% of high court judges, 54% of top journalists and 54% of chief executive officers of FTSE 100 companies.
  • The influence of parental income on the income of children in Britain is among the strongest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Parental income has over one and a half times the impact on male incomes in Britain compared with Canada, Germany and Sweden.

The Government’s report puts a lot of emphasis on the failures of the educational system to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds and unfairness in the access to opportunities. Much has been made of Nick Clegg’s promise to put an end to unpaid and ‘who you know’ internships. They also pin a lot of expectation on the ‘pupil premium’ to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Whilst these moves are welcome, changing an individual’s life expectations is a complex business and just providing more opportunities may not be enough.

Social Cognitive Career Theory (SSCT) suggests that our belief in our ability to take advantages of the opportunities we are presented with (self-efficacy) is influenced by our previous personal successes and failures or by observing other’s experiences — particularly people we relate to. So the client who has been ‘failed’ by the education system or who has fewer successful close role models may have a lower sense of self-efficacy. They are less likely to believe that they can obtain such opportunities or perform well in them.

As well as affecting our belief in our ability to succeed in particular tasks, our early learning environment  may affect our outcome expectations – what we think will happen if we take a particular action. Perhaps we believe that it is not worth taking an internship because all the real jobs go to people from independent schools

Although a lot of an individual’s self-efficacy and outcome expectation beliefs are determined at an early age, they can be changed.

Self-efficacy can be influenced by realistic encouragement and specific feedback on performance. As guidance practitioners we can work with the client to find a feasible strategy to achieve their end goal, help them to realise their strengths or provide practical feedback on application or interview technique. More than ever this support is essential if everyone is going to get a fair shot at social mobility.

Some SSCT influenced questions to consider.

  • How confident is this client in their ability to succeed.
  • Is their self-assessment based on fact?
  • Who are the client’s role models?

Further reading

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  1. #1 by John king on 13 April 2011 - 22:37

    This is a useful article, but it is important to define ‘people we relate to’ – the most important single factor in determining self-efficacy. These people are not necessarily ‘people who relate to us’ -ie., careers advisers, but are more accurately ‘people who are similar to us’. Often this means similar in age, race and social background. According to this theory we should we working hard to put these peer-mentors in touch with our clients.

  2. #2 by Lorna Dargan on 15 April 2011 - 14:59

    I was interested to read at article in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour* about networking and career success (though I find quantitative research quite hard to engage with!). It suggested that networking skills were crucial for career advancement both within and without organisations. It got me thinking about the impact of this on introverts (I’m not obsessed with MBTI, by the way! I’m slightly cynical about it, which is why it intrigues me).

    But (there is a point), I also wonder about how networking skills tie in with the idea of social mobility. If we accept that entry into the professions is a tool of social mobility, and that networks are key to accessing the professions, then it stands to reason that the best networkers will be the most successful and socially mobile.

    So, what does this all mean for people from more disadvantged backgrounds? On the downside, as you rightly point out above, growing up in a ‘chaotic’ household/school can negatively affect self-efficacy. But, on the plus side, we know that social networks are often crucial in deprived areas (I’ll dig out the research) in terms of social support and informal service provision. But, do these social networking skills succesfully translate to other social spheres, such as the professions? It would be interesting to find out. Can one balance out the effect of the other?

    Not sure if that makes sense (it’s Friday afternoon after all), but all of this social mobility stuff is very interesting.

    * Wolf, H. and Moser, G. (2010) “Do specific types of networking predict specific mobility outcomes? A two-year prospective study”. Journal of Vocational Behaviour 77 pp.238-245.

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