This Conservative government certainly talks the talk when it comes to social mobility. But, as Emily Chapman explains, it doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to FE students.

Social mobility has become a bit of a buzzword for the current Conservative government. Justine Greening claims that education is at the heart of social mobility, Anne Milton sees the careers strategy as central to ensuring social mobility for all, and last year Theresa May set out her vision for a truly meritocratic Britain, where social mobility meant that “everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow”.

This vision took a bit of a beating last week when the Social Mobility Commission released its damming ‘State of the nation’ report, highlighting the stark regional differences that exist in Britain today. It sustained an even bigger blow when all four members of the committee quit last week, with Alan Milburn claiming that he has “little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain”.

This is something I’ve been reflecting on myself since I started as vice-president for further education at the NUS six months ago. The findings in the report were incredibly disappointing and concerning, but I would be lying if I said they’d come as a surprise. In my role, I meet students all across the country. The huge gulf that exists between those that have and those that don’t is particularly stark when considering FE. Yet I’ve seen little evidence that this government is truly committed to supporting FE students to become socially mobile.

The huge gulf that exists between those that have and those that don’t is particularly stark when considering FE

FE students disproportionally come from deprived backgrounds; they need the most support to access education, but you wouldn’t know it from the current discourse around education funding.

As is often the case, higher education dominates and the issue of maintenance support in FE is glossed over.

The much-anticipated tertiary education funding review is expected to cover age 18 and above, and let’s be honest, we’ll be lucky if it addresses the significant drop in advanced learner loans or the serious lack of maintenance support adults get to access FE. Last week, Anne Milton was asked a written question about the frankly inadequate maintenance support that 16-to-18s in FE receive.

Her response suggests that the Department for Education is happy with the postcode lottery that discretionary bursaries create.

This issue is a particular feature of the commission’s report, which found that the effect of one’s postcode on one’s prospects is particularly acute for young people, and that disadvantaged youths in urban areas tend to benefit from better outcomes than young people in other areas.

A huge range of factors contribute to this, including a lack of access to higher education institutions. One recommendation it made is for local authorities to offer travel bursaries to enable poorer young people to study degree courses.

Transport is an issue that consistently comes up as a problem for learners, and so I agree that they should receive financial support. But I don’t believe this should be limited to people who want to access higher education. Transport provision and costs vary considerably across different regions in England, but one constant is that plenty of people suffer from poor, unreliable services with little to no financial support.

Last month I launched the #myFEjourney campaign, which lobbies for subsidised or free travel for post-16 learners and apprentices, so that everybody can access and succeed in education, not just those at university.

Further education does so much to support social mobility, but this is often in spite of government policy, not because of it. The government claims to be committed to creating parity of esteem between further and higher education and to ensuring social mobility for all.

To achieve this, though, there needs to be an honest discussion about financial support across the entirety of tertiary education – not just higher. Without this, the government’s great “meritocracy” is nothing more than a buzzword.

Emily Chapman is vice president of FE at the National Union of Students

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  1. Nigel Barratt

    If you live in a democracy then social inequality is inevitable. Some people will ‘move up’ and some will ‘move down’ by virtue of their own efforts, fortunes and other circumstances beyond their control. FE can be a valuable tool in helping people to improve their lot, but so long as colleges are obsessed with their budgets to the exclusion of all else – unable to give time to a student that doesn’t yield a ‘return’ – then they are as useless to their students as their schools were before them. If you want to be going up a snake and not down a ladder, the rules are the same now as they were when Noah was a lad – don’t rely on anyone else except for yourself.

  2. Nixon Tod

    Extreme inequality and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands is not inevitable. It is the result of political and economic decisions.
    But knowledge is power and so anything that helps young people access education has got to be good for them and for all of society.
    I support Emily’s #myFEjourney campaign for free travel for all post 16 learners and apprentices.
    In Greater Manchester the mayor, Andy Burnham, has pledged to introduce free travel for over 16’s at college or on apprenticeships by 2020. This year the first step means that 16 – 18 year olds get 50& reduction on travel. It’s a good start but hopefully the NUS campaign will spread the idea across the UK and pressure the government to put some funding back into FE by way of subsidised transport.