Baroness Tyler of Enfield: The role of character in improving social mobility

 Today Baroness Tyler of Enfield led a debate in the Lords on social mobility and the impact of factors such as character and resilience on individuals’ prospects. As she writes here, so-called “soft skills” can be vital in succeeding in life

Baroness Tyler of Enfield
Baroness Tyler of Enfield

Social mobility is part of a fair and just society. The belief that children from poorer families should have the same opportunities to succeed in life as children from wealthy families is something which rightly unites politicians from across the political spectrum. And yet social mobility in this country is at least flat-lining and, although statistics in this area are always open to interpretation, many commentators believe it has gone into reverse.

It is to the credit of this coalition government that it has made social mobility a central plank of its social policy and welcome the efforts already made to tackle the barriers of disadvantage.

But what more could and should be done? The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, of which I am a vice-chair, has sought to shine a spotlight on some critical areas of the debate which are all too often overlooked. The APPG’s work has led it to understand that social mobility should not be treated just as one homogenous subject, but represents three distinct areas, each calling for its own distinct policy response:

Firstly, to help people break out from deep disadvantage or a troubled background.

Secondly, to help people move on up to ensure all can reach their full potential

And thirdly, to enable “stars to shine” by nurturing outstanding talent.

The APPG report called ‘The 7 Key Truths About Social Mobility’ set out the key issues that policy should focus on looking at the unequal opportunities that start in the earliest years of life and too often persist and widen in later life. But the final key truth I want to focus on is that of ‘character and resilience’. Something the APPG saw as the missing link in the chain.

Character and resilience are somewhat amorphous terms which some might choose to dismiss as fluffy or cosmetic “soft skills”. In fact the very term “soft skills” strikes me as something of a misnomer. Far from being fluffy  developing character and resilience is about developing the fundamental drive, tenacity and perseverance  needed to make the most of opportunities and to succeed in life, whatever obstacles stand in the way.

Recent survey evidence from the Princes Trust tells us that young people from affluent backgrounds are more likely to be told by their family that they can achieve anything and that more than one in four young people from poorer backgrounds felt that “people like them” don’t succeed in life and that it they have failed an exam or been turned down for a job they were more likely to feel they have already failed in life.

Research by the IPPR indicates that personal and social skills have become 33 times more important in determining life chances whilst “soft skills” became 10 times more important in determining future earnings in a single generation.

But the really good news from all this new research is that these character or personality traits are not innate, something you are born with – they can be taught and developed through the life cycle

Successive governments’ efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor have focused largely on exam results but as stark trends show more of the same isn’t working. It’s necessary but not sufficient. That’s why I want to call on government to take more account of this growing evidence surrounding the role of character and resilience in improving social mobility and start putting it into practice.

Much more could be done in early years working with health visitors and children’s centres, linked to the expansion of free early years education.

I’d also like to see the Pupil Premium being used directly to develop character and resilience and the identification and spread of good practice. I also think that teacher training should include models for effective teaching of character and resilience. And because we all know what drives behaviour in schools I would like to see the OFSTED framework developed to include the importance of character and resilience to learning outcomes and report  in its inspections how effectively this is being addressed, linked to school ethos and leadership.

Why does this all matter so much? Well in economic terms that case is clear – studies suggest that reaching international benchmarks on social mobility could be worth around £150bn per year on national income or the equivalent on a one off increase in GDP of 4%.

But socially and morally the case is overwhelming. Someone who’s overcome disadvantage, persevered in the face of adversity and shown real strength of character, surely it is this person who not only deserves the opportunity to succeed and to share in the rewards that our society has to offer. Surely that’s what the just society is all about.

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.


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