'Action is needed to promote social mobility in the Island'

Sir Mark Boleat

By Sir Mark Boleat

EVERYONE can probably agree that we cannot all be equal but that there should be equality of opportunity.

But the reality is very different. People’s life chances are determined to a large extent by their pre-school years. Those children who are not well equipped for school are likely to fall further behind.

Social mobility is a simple concept. It refers to change in a person’s socio-economic situation, either in relation to their parents or throughout their lifetime, and is linked to equality of opportunity. There is now a huge amount of data on trends in social mobility in many countries and much analysis on the factors that influence social mobility. There is little such data in Jersey, but, as in so many other areas, Jersey can draw on data and analysis from other jurisdictions.

The Island’s think tank, the Policy Centre Jersey, has done just that. A group of Islanders from many different backgrounds have got together to discuss the issues and have contributed to the centre’s comprehensive report titled Social Mobility in Jersey.

At a global level, while almost six of ten children from privileged socio-economic backgrounds are exposed to regular home learning before primary school, only just over three of ten children from disadvantaged backgrounds are. Socio-economic status also shapes a child’s ambitions. Across OECD countries, only around half of 15-year-olds from households of low socio-economic status expect to complete higher education, compared to more than four of five from high-status households.

The five main drivers of social mobility in the UK are conditions of childhood, educational opportunities and quality of schooling, work opportunities for young people, the value of people’s social connections and research and development expenditure.

All of these factors apply in Jersey. But there are also special factors. The operation of the housing market has worsened social mobility in Jersey. Those who bought homes many years ago have benefited from the significant rise in house prices and have been willing and able to use the increase in wealth to help their children with housing costs, in particular to become home owners. Those whose parents have been tenants have been less able to acquire capital and are therefore less able to help their children with housing costs. Jersey has benefits and tax systems that significantly improve income inequality, but housing costs almost remove this improvement.

The education system also worsens social mobility. A significant proportion, about 20%, of UK university students choose to study near their home and continue to live at home while they are studying. This has obvious advantages in terms of costs and is therefore particularly attractive to students whose parents cannot help with meeting the cost of living away from home. This option is not available to most students from Jersey.

The secondary-school system, which has by international standards an exceptionally high degree of selection, has been found by an official government report to be “a structural barrier to achieving inclusive education”. Jersey’s primary schools generally seem to perform well – although there is no data that compares their performance with other jurisdictions. But how many people understand the huge differences between the schools in terms of the makeup of their pupils? In the five St Helier schools in 2021 66% of pupils did not have English as a first language, 13% had special education needs and 43% qualified for the Jersey premium. By contrast, in the ten rural schools the proportions were 14%, 9% and 18%. Are these differences adequately reflected in the allocation of resources so as to promote equality of opportunity?

So what should be done, assuming that there is a political will to improve social mobility? A first step should be the commissioning of a study on the extent of and trends in social mobility in Jersey, drawing on existing statistical data and comparisons with the UK and other jurisdictions in order to provide the data to inform policy decisions. The Policy Centre report has a stab at this, but it would claim to be no more than broad-brush, as it lacked the resources to do justice to the issue.

Such an analysis would undoubtedly show the need to reduce the cost of housing, which is important for other reasons. It surely cannot be acceptable that access to the Bank of the Mum of Dad is almost a necessity for the many young people who do not qualify for social housing to be able to afford to live in Jersey.

A (relatively) quick win would be to increase the attractiveness of and demand for higher education in the Island and to address the low level of aspiration among state school students. It is right that the vast majority of Jersey students going on to higher education should do so outside of their island home – but for those students for whom this is not viable or practical, surely they should have the same opportunity for university education as their counterparts in the UK? And in this context, Highlands College (the campus not the institution) should shame the Island. That it is nowhere near fit for purpose even though it provides good-quality education for many of those from a less advantaged background has been known for years, but nothing has been done. Having a state-of-the-art facility or facilities for higher and further education would do far more for the people of Jersey than wind farms, tunnels, bridges and even a new hospital.

More action is needed on early-years education, particularly given anecdotal evidence that an increasing number of children, even from affluent backgrounds, are less equipped to start their schooling. Disadvantaged children tend to benefit more significantly from high-quality early childhood, so there is a strong case for prioritising policies that seek to increase early childhood education and care participation among economically disadvantaged groups.

Responsibility for promoting social mobility is primarily a matter for the government, but it is not only for the government. Employers should be doing their bit to promote social mobility – by measuring socio-economic diversity in their workforce, building a talent pipeline, improving recruitment practices, keeping and nurturing talent and looking outside of their workplace. There are several excellent resources that can help employers make a significant contribution to promoting social mobility while at the same time contributing to a more effective workforce. Some employers in Jersey have a good record in this respect and are benefiting as a result.

Understanding the concept of social mobility is easy, but promoting it is not. It requires a joined-up approach by government covering many policy areas and over an extended period. But the benefits are huge, not only to those from less advantaged backgrounds but also to the Island as a whole.

The report Social Mobility on Jersey can be downloaded from the Policy Centre Jersey’s website: policy.je.

  • Sir Mark Boleat has held a number of leadership positions in companies, public bodies and charities in Jersey and in the UK. He is senior adviser to the Policy Centre Jersey.

– Advertisement –
– Advertisement –