With funding from the Walcot Foundation, the University of Birmingham undertook qualitative research on 40 former Walcot grantees (young people from low income Lambeth households) to map their journeys through Further and Higher Education and then into the labour market.
Powerpoint from launch event
Click 'read more' for details of the research and its findings
- Almost universally the participants had been encouraged to better themselves, to move through university or further education and to establish better careers than those of their parents; however, there was little knowledge about how to do this: many participants referred to their aspirations, but they had ‘no road map’ to direct their life goals. Critically, participants lacked continuous sources of advice to support education and career choices. Participants were often left to navigate these decisions independently, forced to stitch together sources of information and advice to make critical life choices.
- Higher and Further Education can undoubtedly provide opportunities to develop important forms of 'capital'. While this was the case for our participants, in many instances they reflected on the ways in which they were poorly positioned to take advantage of these opportunities, particularly when they compared themselves to their wealthier peers. Critically participants believed that they lacked the necessary cultural capital to navigate educational institutions to access extracurricular opportunities. Moreover, many participants lacked the time to take part in these activities due to the need to work alongside their studies and they failed to build the ‘soft credentials’ required to distinguish their CVs.
- The picture that emerged from the research was one of frustrated or stalled mobility. Interestingly there was no discernible ‘London effect’ whereby participants benefited from their physical proximity to the city’s labour market. Despite high levels of aspiration, most participants had experienced static mobility, moving between education and low wage work, from which it was difficult to envisage an immediate route to well-paid and fulfilling forms of work. As well as a number of graduates, it was notable that all those who had completed their educational journey at a Further Education (FE) college were located in this group. It was a common perception amongst this group that they had not been able to build the necessary networks and work experience during education that would allow them to bridge into well-paid work and compete against wealthier peers.
- Those participants who had adapted forms of mobility had experienced similar frustrations. Participants in this category tended to be trying to access industries or sectors of the labour market that have poorly defined routes of entry, such as the media or creative arts. Adapted mobility is characterised by a career plan that has crystallised at the end of university or shortly afterwards, and that then requires further adaptation. Many of these participants were self-employed or working in low wage positions, either to gain related experience in order to move into their chosen careers or seeking to build networks that would create career opportunities.
- In contrast to the static and adapting groups, the few participants experiencing rising mobility offer an interesting counterpoint. It is apparent from this group that those with trajectories into the professions had accessed structured pathways into the labour market. Typically these participants had chosen a degree tied to a particular profession, such as medicine or teaching, which negated the need to gain work experience in order to enter graduate employment. Increased levels of social capital were identified among this group, in particular broader social networks that offered important information channels. However, a number of participants experiencing rising mobility referred to the ‘serendipitous’ nature of key moments in their journey.
Advice and networks
- Students need study and careers advice throughout further and higher education and into the labour market. This is likely to benefit social mobility. Even better is giving students access to employer networks or to peer advisers that can offer insights into specific careers and sectors.
- Careers advice in schools and colleges is underfunded.
- Opportunities to build ‘soft credentials’, as well as the support offered at universities, must developed well in advance, so that individuals from low-income backgrounds arrive at further or higher education with the necessary cultural capital.
- Peer to peer or alumni mentoring schemes, if developed, can provide settle students into university life. A coordinated scheme to replace the current pattern of fragmented provision will help those from low-income backgrounds prepare for university.
- The 16–19 bursary scheme should be extended to provide support to those who would have qualified for free school meals.
- The lack of access to internships is a significant issue.
- Social mobility within an increasingly unequal society is a difficult, if not impossible, policy aim to achieve. Action is required to resolve the stark inequalities that exist within the labour and housing markets. For those who are currently trapped in low wage work or the private rented sector it is difficult to see how the pathway into well paid and fulfilling work, and ultimately upward mobility, can be achieved.
- As well as promoting the ‘Living Wage’, more long-term labour market reform in this area is required to provide guaranteed pathways from low paid work.