Opinion: Social Mobility Commission launch

Why we need to end the culture of questioning ambition for socially mobile to thrive

I want to start with the idea that it’s not where you are that needs to change but the opportunities need to be there to allow you to change. I still walk the same streets that I grew up on and as I’m starting to write this I’m taking my mum to the jobcentre for her Universal Credit appointment – but could this have been me?

This situation at the job centre is a far cry from the surroundings I’m getting used to in oak-panelled rooms with Dames, Sir’s, Generals and Ministers.

My high-school corridors are where my future could have forked. I was living on a council estate, brought up by a single mum, in and out of care when she became unwell.

I was a back-chatting brat but inquisitive and entrepreneurial. I remember the slap downs to my ambition, painfully. In particular, I remember when I could have lost it all. A teacher took the school magazine project out of my hands: “you’re not doing it anymore,” she told me. “You need to focus on your GCSEs”.

It wasn’t all about grades for me. I wanted, and in hindsight, I needed something to focus on. After this it became more than a project that engaged me and passed the time – I wanted to prove the school wrong.

[https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/aug/10/uk-riots-language] At the same time, I saw the anti-youth rhetoric building in the national conversation from the fallout to the 2011 riots, vilifying young people as animals, scum and yobs reflected back at me from the newspapers in my local corner shop.

I knew then that the conversation needed to change and I wanted to see young people leading it. I set up Xplode Magazine when I was 15 and in my final year at Ladybridge High School in Bolton.

Today, we are a registered charity recognised by Her Majesty the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and we are still entirely youth-led producing magazines and providing skills training.

Social mobility, all about giving young people the best chance in life no matter their background, has defined me. From a kid in care to Government Commissioner for Social Mobility – and in my less manic moments, a sense of imposter syndrome hits me.

I admit that my journey is somewhat extraordinary because when I talk to young people I hear that most are just striving for a steady job.

As if it was that simple though. We consistently see that young people lack experience and are getting turned down from jobs because of it. It’s a vicious circle that needs breaking otherwise we risk stalling social mobility even further.

What did it take for me to go against the status quo and go against the teacher for whom I should have had faith in? And how do we ensure that my story isn’t just a flash in the pan case study but a practical pathway for many other young people?

I don’t think it’s up to Government alone to solve the “lamentable” social mobility track record in the UK. [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/662744/State_of_the_Nation_2017_-_Social_Mobility_in_Great_Britain.pdf]

I find it totally perplexing that the private sector spends billions of pounds looking to engage young people while schools are crying out for private sector engagement. It was private sector engagement through the Prince’s Trust’s Mosaic Enterprise Challenge that made me think ‘outside the box’ and see that there is more to life than GCSE grades.

The state of social mobility is not entirely without hope. As a trustee of Step up to Serve, I’m meeting young people across the country who are using social action as a route to becoming more socially mobile gaining key skills and developing communities around them.

Schools and colleges are crucial for helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in social action, yet those serving young people from low-income families are least likely to have a culture of social action. [https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/national-youth-social-action-survey-2016] Our research shows that 69% of young people doing social action get involved through school or college, as my own journey proves. Teachers are the ‘biggest motivator for young people from the least affluent families’ – maybe I got a bad apple. But today, the same teacher says it was a calculated questioning of my ambition.

I’m proud to be part of the reconstituted Social Mobility Commission launching today. We are the most diverse set of Commissioners and have already been recognised for this. [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/760721/Lord-Holmes-Review-full.pdf]

I applied to become a Commissioner – admittedly a long shot – because I want to give back to a country that’s given so much to me and bring young people’s voices to the top table at the heart of decision making which was the mission I set out with seven years ago when I set up Xplode.