Improving the transition from school to work Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

“I feel like a chess piece in a game because someone is making the moves for me.”1

Cardine, aged 22

1.The House of Lords appointed this Committee “to consider social mobility in the transition from school to work”.2 Within this remit, we decided to focus on the changing youth labour market and in particular to investigate routes to work for those who do not do A-Levels or go on to higher education. We have not focused on those who are classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET).

2.We want our findings to be accessible to everyone, particularly to the young people who gave their time to help us with our inquiry. We have tried to write our report in a style which achieves this.

The focus of our inquiry

Most young people, especially those who do not follow an academic route, are ‘overlooked’

3.Recent Governments have focused on the top and bottom of the social ladder. At the top, the focus has been on improving university access and on success at GCSE and A-Level. At the bottom, the focus has been on those young people not in education, employment or training or at high risk of becoming so.

4.Not much attention has been given to the young people between these two groups.3 They have been ‘forgotten’ or ‘overlooked’ by policy-makers. Yet most young people are in the middle. For instance, most students achieve the middle academic grades at GCSE4 (see Figure 1 below). In fact, most young people do not follow an academic route after age 16.5 Two thirds of young people in their early 20s do not have a degree.6 Indeed, in England in 2013/14, of a total population of 1,285,800 16 and 17 year-olds, only 47 per cent of young people (601,500 people) aged 16 and 17 started A-Levels (see Figure 2 below)7, whereas 53 per cent (684,300) did not do so. In 2015 only 269,942 young people entered the exam for at least one A-Level. A further 404,100 entered for at least one substantial Level 3 qualification.8

Figure 1: attainment at GCSE9

Figure 2: Post-16 participation by main qualification studied by 16 and 17 year olds (2014)

Source: Department of Education SFR 19, 2015, Table E7: Participation in education and work based learning of 16 & 17 year olds by highest qualification aim, England, 1985 onwards

5.The ‘overlooked’ group can be defined by the route they follow after age 16 and whether they complete two or more years of study. It can include those on:

Transitions to work

6.The transition from school to work is vital because choices made at this point will have lifelong effects. Making a good transition into work can overcome earlier disadvantage. Making a bad transition can mean a lifetime of poverty.11

7.The Government now has a chance to improve transitions. Recent changes to the ‘participation age’ in England mean thousands of school leavers have to stay in education or training until their 18th birthday.12 This is good news if the further education (FE) system has the ability and the resources to support them into adulthood and employment. If it does not, it is time wasted.

Figure 3: Qualification levels and equivalents

Chart showing qualification levels and equivalents

Source: HM Government, ‘Compare different qualifications’ [accessed 22 March 2016]

Those from privileged backgrounds remain more likely to succeed

8.Increasing social mobility has been a priority for recent Governments. Yet people with privileged backgrounds are still more likely to get the best jobs and those without are more likely to be left behind.13 In 2016 it was found that although just seven per cent of pupils in the United Kingdom were privately educated, they accounted for half of all cabinet ministers, 13 per cent of the shadow cabinet, 48 per cent of permanent secretaries (the most senior civil servants), 74 per cent of senior judges and 32 per cent of Members of Parliament.14 This is just one illustration of the impact education can have on future opportunities.

9.Another reason for rising inequality in the United Kingdom is the big gap between people who are highly skilled and people who are less skilled.15 This is important because people who are better educated, in particular those who show aptitude in English, maths and problem solving tend to go into more highly skilled jobs and earn more.16

10.There is a growing gap in income between the richest and the poorest.17 This growing gap can compound the difficulties around access to top jobs which command high wages.18 In addition to negative impacts on individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, OECD analysis suggests that income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on medium-term growth19. The OECD measures income inequality on a scale of zero to one—the ‘Gini’ measure. If a country measures zero on the scale it means everyone has the same income (there is no difference). If it measures one, this means all income goes to only one person. Income inequality has risen by three Gini points on average in the OECD over the past two decades. If this trend continues, rising inequality would drag down economic growth by 0.35 percentage points per year for 25 years: a total loss in GDP of 8.5 per cent at the end of the period. The OECD estimates that rising income inequality may have knocked off nearly nine per cent of potential growth in the UK economy.20

Figure 4: Income inequality

Source: Adapted from OECD (2016), Income inequality (indicator)

What is social mobility?

11.This section sets out some statistics which deal with the concept of social mobility. Social mobility is about where a person ends up in life compared to where they started. To put it another way it is about the movement of a person from one social class to another. It is important to distinguish social mobility from income or wealth inequality.

Box 1: ‘Great Gatsby’ curve

While academics contest the link between social mobility and inequality, some suggest that inequality is itself a cause of lower social mobility, as depicted in the ‘Great Gatsby’ curve introduced by White House economist Alan Krueger.

Source: David Vandivier, ‘What is the Great Gatsby Curve’, The White House, (June 2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

Whether or not one thing causes the other, there does appear to be a strong relationship between income inequality and social mobility.

12.When politicians talk about social mobility, they are interested in whether the opportunity to move up through society is equal for everyone. This is known as ‘relative’ social mobility. It is about a person’s chances of success compared to people with different backgrounds. It shows how fair a society is and whether opportunities for people to succeed are equal.21 A person’s background can often affect how successful they are, for example through the kind of job they get.22 In the United Kingdom there is a strong link between a person’s background and where they end up.23 There also appears to be a stronger relationship between parental background and children’s future income than in many other countries.24

13.Children who are exposed to certain factors in their background are more likely to have poor outcomes later in life.25 Some of these problems of access are exacerbated by ‘opportunity hoarding.’ Parents naturally want their children to have the best chances of a successful life. For people who have been successful themselves this includes protecting their children from downwards social mobility. For example, they might pay for private tutors so that their children can get into grammar schools. They might help them get into a good school or university. For some, it will involve asking a family friend to take on their child for work experience.26 This means that there is a good chance of children born higher up the social ladder staying there. This in turn can mean that there are fewer positions for children from lower down the social ladder to move into, if those higher up hold on to them.27

14.One of the factors identified in the box is family background. The issues connected to a young person’s family circumstances can have a fundamental impact on their life chances, including their prospects of social mobility. The issue of parenting and social mobility would merit an inquiry in its own right. Although some witnesses did mention it, the issue was not one on which we received a significant amount of evidence and our inquiry has focused on the transition from school to work. Similarly our focus on this transition has meant that we have not considered the valuable role which life-long learning can play in meeting people’s educational needs and achieving positive social mobility at different stages in their lives. This is particularly important in a fast-changing world in which the demands of the workplace are constantly evolving.

15.Another type of social mobility is ‘absolute’ social mobility. This is about the difference between a person’s position in society when they are an adult compared with when they were a child. So if there are more and better jobs for people to move up into there will be more absolute social mobility, even if everyone moves up. Absolute social mobility shows how changes in society as a whole are helping people to get on in life.28 A good spread of jobs across all skills levels acts like a ladder—there are more jobs to move up into.

Box 2: factors which may affect social mobility29

Some factors affect the chances of going up the social ladder later in life. Examples include:

  • Low income, or coming from a poorer background. In the United Kingdom, the Government and researchers use eligibility for free school meals as the main measure of disadvantage.
  • Low educational attainment. Inequalities in secondary education are likely to turn into later education inequalities and wage inequality.
  • Family background, such as parenting skills, parental income and education, parental mental health, and family structure and size.
  • Poor social and emotional skills. Character and resilience in particular affect a person’s chances of success.
  • Gender. Girls outperform boys at GCSE and all other measures at the end of secondary school.
  • Ethnicity. The percentage of pupils achieving good GCSE grades varies between different ethnic groups. As do employment outcomes.
  • Special educational needs and disability (SEND). Pupils with SEND have a large education attainment gap when compared to those without any identified SEND. For instance, in 2011, around 25 per cent of those reporting a basic activity difficulty had only a lower secondary education, compared with 12.4 per cent of those without difficulty.
  • Health. For example, low birth weight is associated with a wide range of poor educational and health outcomes later in life.
  • Geography. Different areas of England have different rates of social mobility. Living in a deprived neighbourhood also has an effect.

16.Often when people talk about social mobility, they mean ‘upwards’ mobility. For example, in June 2015 the Prime Minister said:

“Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background, whatever stage of life you are at, I believe this Government can help you fulfil your aspirations. And let me be clear, when I say whoever you are, I mean it.”30

17.Upwards mobility is moving up the social structure by, for example, getting a better job or earning a bigger wage. This is seen as a good thing by most people. However, for someone to move upwards there must be a job for them to move up into, which will be easier if there are lots of better jobs available. Where there are only a few good jobs, someone might have to move down to make space for another person to move up. This is known as downward mobility.

Measuring social mobility

18.Measuring social mobility is difficult. Researchers try to measure social mobility by looking at a lot of factors—such as the income of a person’s parents averaged over a period of time; whether a person had free school meals at school; or what type of school a person went to. It must be measured over time, as people do not reach the level of job at which the will stay until (on average) their mid-thirties.31 This means that any policies to improve social mobility can only be examined over many years. Even then, it is difficult to say for certain whether any changes were due to a particular policy.

19.We are interested in the reasons behind insufficient social mobility. This report is aimed at making recommendations to improve opportunities for all young people when they leave school.

Labour market changes

20.The types of jobs available are very important to social mobility. Changes to the economy—such as more and better jobs with better pay and more security—can have a positive impact.32 But young people from this middle cohort are often caught in part-time, low-paid, low-skilled and temporary jobs.33 After leaving school or college they take on are jobs such as kitchen and catering assistants and serving staff in bars and restaurants, as well as roles in sales and customer service. The pathway to progressing from these roles on to something better is not clear or easily achievable.34 This means these young people are at a significant disadvantage from those who have degrees. There are limited opportunities to get a good first job or to begin to go up the social ladder. The better first jobs tend to go to graduates. This is bad news for social mobility. Under these conditions, the only realistic aspiration for young people in the middle is to maintain their position.

21.Trends in social mobility will also be affected by forecast changes in the British economy. For example, technology will affect the routes into different jobs,35 and new technologies will affect the types of careers available.36 For instance, in 2015 another House of Lords Committee found that the digital revolution was “changing the labour market fundamentally.”37

Box 3: What are low-, intermediate-, and high-skilled jobs?

According to the standard occupational classification,38 jobs can be grouped into three categories:

1.Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations

Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations

Large employers and higher managerial and administrative occupations

Higher professional occupations

Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations

2.Intermediate occupations39

Intermediate occupations

Small employers and own account workers

3.Routine and manual occupations

Lower supervisory and technical occupations

Semi-routine occupations

Routine occupations

There are also those that have never worked or are long-term unemployed.

Source: Office for National Statistics, National Statistics Socio-economic classification (2010)

22.The number of high-skilled jobs, such as managerial and professional roles, has increased.40 The number of mid-level jobs, such as those in administration and production roles, is decreasing. The number of low-skilled jobs, such as care workers and childminders, has grown.41 This has contracted the middle of the labour market. Some people say that this contraction means that the jobs market looks like an hour-glass in shape.42

23.The decrease in mid-level jobs makes it more difficult to progress from lower-skilled jobs to medium-skilled jobs.43 It makes it more difficult to enter the labour market in the middle. It also means there is substantially less of a ladder of employment opportunities to climb up.

24.Some of these types of low-skilled jobs have declined in number since the economic recession in 2008 and 2009.44 The opportunities that do exist are increasingly taken up by older and more experienced workers. They have been displaced into low-skilled jobs because there have been fewer mid-level jobs available.45 These older workers sometimes have the advantage of having already worked and having that experience. Employers tend to recruit people over the age of 25, even when a younger person could do the job, because they like employees to have had experience of working.46 Employers said this was because young people are not “work ready”, that is that they lacked skills or experience, and sometimes both. 47

25.On top of this, university graduates are often recruited into non-graduate roles. In 2012, 47 per cent of graduates were employed in jobs which do not normally require higher education qualifications.48

Figure 5: Detailed changes by occupation (000s)

Source: UKCES, Working Futures 2012–2022 (March 2014):–2022-main-report.pdf [accessed 22 March 2016]

Our inquiry

26.We issued our call for evidence on 27 July 2015, and took oral evidence from 48 witnesses during 19 sessions held between July and December 2015. We received 136 pieces of written evidence. We are grateful to all who contributed. The witnesses who provided it are shown in Appendix 2. The call for evidence is shown in Appendix 3. The evidence received is published online.

27.Education and skills are policy areas devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We received helpful evidence from each devolved administration. We have made it clear throughout our report where we are talking about the United Kingdom or England specifically.

28.As part of our inquiry we visited Lilian Baylis Technology School in Lambeth on 4 November 2015. We also visited Derby College, the International Centre for Guidance Studies and Rolls-Royce PLC on 24 November 2015. More information on these visits can be found at Appendices 5 and 6 to this report.

29.We also developed our own survey for 14–24 year-olds. This ran from 28 July 2015 until 16 October 2015. Although our survey had over 650 responses it is important to note that it was a limited exercise, albeit one that gave the Committee useful indicators. The survey asked about the support and advice that was available to young people as they made the transition from school to work, the guidance they had received and what they felt was needed to be successful. The full findings of the survey have been published separately to this report.49

30.On 27 October 2015, we held a focus group with 19–24 year-olds. More information on this focus group can be found at Appendix 4.

31.The members of the Select Committee on Social Mobility who carried out the inquiry are listed in Appendix 1, which shows their declared interests. Throughout the course of our inquiry we have been fortunate to have had the assistance of Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker as our specialist adviser. We are most grateful to her for her contribution to our work.

32.During the oral evidence sessions, each witness was asked to provide one idea which this Committee could recommend to the Government. We have published these suggestions alongside this report.

1 See note of focus group (Appendix 4)

2 HL Deb, 11 June 2015, cols 893-894

3 See for instance Ken Spours, Geoff Stanton, Robert Vesey and John West, The ‘over-looked middle’ in 14+ education and training: Becoming the new NEETs? (March 2012): [accessed 22 March 2016]; Jonathan Birdwell, Matt Grist and Julia Margo, The forgotten half. A Demos and Private Equity Foundation Report, (2011): [accessed 22 March 2016]; Prof Kenneth Roberts, ‘Education to Work Transitions: How the Old Middle Went Missing and Why the New Middle Remains Elusive’, Sociological Research Online, vol 18, (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

4 Prof Kenneth Roberts, ‘Education to Work Transitions: How the Old Middle Went Missing and Why the New Middle Remains Elusive’, Sociological Research Online, vol 18, (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

5 Prof Ann Hodgson and Prof Ken Spours, ‘Middle attainers and 14–19 progression in England: half-served by New Labour and now overlooked by the Coalition?’, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 40, (2013), pp 467–482: [accessed 22 March 2016]

6 Office for National Statistics, Qualifications and Labour Market Participation in England and Wales, 2014:–06-18 [accessed 22 March 2016]

7 Department for Education, ‘Participation in education, training and employment: 2014’, SFR19/2015, Table 4: Participation of 16 to 18 year-olds in full-time education by highest qualification aim, end 2014’: [accessed 22 March 2016]

8 Department for Education, ‘National tables: SFR03/2016, Table 1a: A Level and Level 3 results by institution type and gender, 2014/15’, National Statistics: A Level and other Level 3 results 2014 to 2015: [accessed 22 March 2016]

9 Department for Education, (January 2015, updated March 2015),’Subject and LA tables: SFR02/2015, Table 11: GCSE Full Course results of pupils at the end of key stage 4 in all schools, by subject and grade’, Revised GCSE and equivalent results in England: 2013 to 2014: [accessed 22 March 2016]

10 Ken Spours, Geoff Stanton, Robert Vesey and John West, The ‘over-looked middle’ in 14+ education and training: Becoming the new NEETs? (March 2012): [accessed 22 March 2016]

11 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, State of the Nation 2014: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain (December 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

12 The participation age is the age by which young people have to stay in some form of education or training. See Public Accounts Committee, 16- to 18-year-old participation in education and training (Thirty-first Report, Session 2014–15, HC 707).

13 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

14 The Sutton Trust, Leading People 2016:The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite (February 2016): [accessed 22 March 2016]

15 The OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC): England/Northern Ireland (UK) is among the bottom three countries when comparing literacy proficiency among 16–24 year-olds.

16 Andy Green and Nicola Pensiero, Policy Briefing: The Effects of Upper Secondary Education and Training Systems on Skills Inequality, (March 2015). See also OECD Skills Outlook 2013: [accessed 22 March 2016]

17 Since the 1970s.

18 Anitha George, Hilary Metcalf, Leila Tufekci and David Wilkinson, Understanding Age and the Labour Market (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

19 Growth rate of GDP per capita (relative to the population aged 25–64).

20 OECD, Focus on Inequality and Growth (December 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

Andy Green, Francis Green and Nicola Pensiero, Why are Literacy and Numeracy Skills in England so Unequal? Evidence from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills and other International Surveys, Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies (LLAKES), Research Paper 47, (2014)

21 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, State of the Nation 2013: social mobility and child poverty in Great Britain (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

22 Dr Abigail McKnight, Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’ (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]; Leon Feinstein, ‘Inequality in the early cognitive development of British children in the early 1970 cohort’, Economica, vol. 70, Issue 277, (February 2003), pp 73–97

23 See for example Jo Blanden and Lindsey Macmillan, Education and Intergenerational Mobility: Help or Hindrance? (January 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

24 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Elitist Britain? (August 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

25 HM Treasury and Department for Education and Skills, Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper (January 2007)

26 Dr Abigail McKnight, Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’ (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

27 Dr Abigail McKnight, Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’ (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

28 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, State of the Nation 2013: social mobility and child poverty in Great Britain (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

29 Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission, The Social Mobility Index (2016), [accessed 22 March 2016]

OECD, A Family Affair: Intergenerational Social Mobility Across OECD Countries (2010): [accessed 22 March 2016]

Character and Resilience Manifesto: [accessed 22 March 2016]

HM Treasury and Department for Education and Skills, Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper (January 2007)

HM Government, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility (April 2011) [accessed 22 March 2016]

Department for Education, ‘GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics, 2013 to 2014: [accessed 22 March 2016]

Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission, The Social Mobility Index (2016): [accessed 22 March 2016]

Jo Blanden and Lindsey Macmillan, Education and Intergenerational Mobility: Help or Hindrance? (January 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

OECD, Income inequality data update and policies impacting income distribution: United Kingdom (February 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

30 The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, Speech on opportunity (22 June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

31 Patrick Sturgis, University of Southampton, Southampton Statistical Research Institute, Trends in Social Mobility in the UK—Evidence Briefing (December 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

32 HM Government, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility (April 2011): [accessed 22 March 2016]

33 Anitha George, Hilary Metcalf, Leila Tufekci and David Wilkinson, ‘Understanding Age and the Labour Market’ (June 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

34 Kenneth Roberts, ‘Education to Work Transitions: How the Old Middle Went Missing and Why the New Middle Remains Elusive’, Sociological Research Online, vol. 18 (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

35 UKCES, The Future of Work: Jobs and skills in 2030 (February 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

36 For example, see Select Committee on Digital Skills, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (Report of Session 2014–15, HL Paper 111)

37 Select Committee on Digital Skills, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (Report of Session 2014–15, HL Paper 111)

38 The standard occupational classification (SOC) is a common classification of occupational information for the UK. See ONS: [accessed 22 March 2016]

39 Positions in clerical, sales, service and intermediate technical occupations that do not involve general planning or supervisory powers. Positions in this group are intermediate in terms of employment regulation; they combine elements of both the service relationship and the labour contract. Although positions in L7 have some features of the service relationship, they do not usually involve any exercise of authority (other than in applying standardised rules and procedures where discretion is minimal) and are subject to quite detailed bureaucratic regulation.

41 See for example Ian Brinkley, ‘Do we have an hourglass labour market?’ The Work Foundation (21 January 2015): [accessed 19 January 2016] and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Hollowing Out and the Future of the Labour Market, (October 2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

42 For example, UKCES, The Future of Work: Jobs and skills in 2030 (February 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

44 ONS, Young People in the Labour Market (March 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]. See also Laura Gardiner, Hollowing out- deeper than it sounds 923 (March 2015): [accessed 22 March 2016]

45 UKCES, Precarious Futures: Youth employment in an international context (February 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

46 Data from the OECD for Q3, 2014 shows that the employment rate for 15–24 year olds was 48.3 per cent compared to 82.2 per cent for 25–54 year olds. The employment rate for a given age group is measured as the number of employed people of a given age as a percentage of the total number of people in that same age group.

Data from the Labour Force Survey shows a UK economic activity rate of 81.7 for people aged 25–34 compared to 54.9 percent of those aged 16–24.

The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of 16- to 24- year-olds (AGE 16 to 24) supports businesses that would not otherwise be in a position to do so, to recruit individuals aged 16 to 24 into employment through the apprenticeship programme.

47 UKCES, UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey 2013: UK Results (January 2014): [accessed 22 March 2016]

48 This was up 10 per cent, from 37 per cent in 2001. ONS, Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 (November 2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]. Professors Peter Elias and Kate Purcell at the University of Warwick have defined a non-graduate job as one in which the associated tasks do not normally require knowledge and skills developed through higher education to enable them to perform these tasks in a competent manner. Prof Peter Elias and Prof Kate Purcell, Futuretrack ‘Working Paper No. 5: Classifying graduate occupations for the knowledge society’, Warwick Institute for Employment Research (2013): [accessed 22 March 2016]

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