November 11, 2013

Government social mobility tsar says following Gordons’ lead must become “core business for our society”

Click here for further coverage of the event at the Yorkshire Post

Click here for further coverage of the event at the Law Society Gazette

A leading Government adviser has said a Yorkshire law firm’s apprenticeship scheme is just the kind of innovation that must become “core business for our society”.

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, was addressing a Leeds seminar on the contribution businesses can make to tackling social mobility issues, organised by Yorkshire law firm Gordons. The event was attended by business leaders from throughout the region.

Gordons’ annual apprenticeship scheme, the first of its kind in the legal sector when it was introduced in 2011, offers careers in law to bright Yorkshire youngsters who may otherwise be denied them, because of their potential inability to attend university.

Mr Milburn said: “I really want to endorse what Gordons is doing. It is providing a huge opportunity for the kids in its scheme. The fact that Paul Ayre, the firm’s managing partner, thinks that many of the cohort of youngsters that are coming through are going to have outstanding careers in the law tells you something. Had it not been for the firm’s scheme, the truth is they would never have had that point-of-entry.”

Presenting Gordons’ scheme in its wider context, Mr Milburn said the Government’s goal of abolishing child poverty in the UK by 2020 was likely to be missed, perhaps by as many as two million children. His commission, which published its first annual report last month, had said it was now entirely possible that social mobility, after flat-lining in the latter years of the last century, could go into reverse in the early part of this one.

Mr Milburn said: “The most staggering finding we came across in researching our report, which is grounded in good academic research, is that half of British citizens will experience poverty during the course of a nine-year period.”

He said that as about 2.5 million people were officially unemployed – a much lower number, but still 2.5 million too many – this indicated the rise in recent years of the working poor.

Mr Milburn said: “Two-thirds of kids officially deemed poor by the Government are in working households and three-quarters are in homes where one of the partners works full-time. Work is simply not paying enough and people are not earning enough to be able to escape the poverty trap.

“The proportion of 25 to 34 year-olds owning their own home has dropped from 60 per cent to 40 per cent in a decade and, for the first time in a century, there’s now a reasonable chance our children will endure lower living standards than we have enjoyed.”

Mr Milburn pointed to factors such as the stagnation in real average earnings since 2003 and fall in real value of the National Minimum Wage during recent years, despite constantly rising prices, as factors contributing to this position.

He said Gordons’ scheme was important, as a key element in tackling entrenched poverty and social immobility was fair access to the professions.

Mr Milburn said: “The greater the opportunities for white collar employment, the higher the chances of social mobility. Over 80 per cent of the new jobs created in Britain in the next 10 years will be in professional employment and the proportion of the workforce in these jobs will rise from 42 per cent today to 46 per cent by the end of the decade.

“The question is: ‘who will get these jobs?’ Our research indicates that the professions are all still dominated by the socially elite and that the backgrounds of people entering them haven’t changed much in the last 40 years.

“There’s an over preponderance from privileged, private school-type backgrounds and an under preponderance of the kind of people from state school, underprivileged backgrounds that Gordons is employing.”

In summary, Mr Milburn said tackling child poverty and social immobility would require a far bigger national effort than had been made to date, involving parties such as government, employers, schools, universities and careers services, which had to work together to create “a far greater level playing field of opportunity”.

Stressing his optimism, however, that this could be achieved, by citing factors such as the massive expansion of the UK middle-class following the Second World War, Mr Milburn said: “The one thing that I’m certain about is that things don’t have to stay this way. Other countries have done it in recent years and we’ve done it before too.”