The era of ‘get on your bike’ is over. Tebbit’s 1981 vintage remark underlies the doctrine of social mobility which aims to improve education and employment opportunities for the working classes. This is still noble, but our ‘left behind’ towns and villages testify that Tebbit didn’t quite join the dots.
If you are from Macclesfield where the silk industry no longer booms, the idea that all you need is a bike to traverse the Pennines each day for a new green job in Sheffield is not wrong. But is this true social mobility? Or does it swap one problem for another: individual employment for deprived places.
This is geographical mobility masquerading as social mobility.
Help is on the way! A new (old) idea is brewing to deliver true social mobility that works for both people and places.
Last week, the Commons Education Select Committee released a report declaring ‘The Department, the educational establishment and wider society have fallen victim to muddled thinking’. Ouch!
It marks a new dawn: a departure from outdated models which depend on internal migration (the preserve of the middle classes) and a pivot towards a belief in the power of place (a working class instinct) to retain and attract both labour and capital.
It also reflects a new reality. As a nation recovering from a savage pandemic, we’ve spent more time in our communities and we’ve come to appreciate the various quirks and offerings of local places, and even to prefer them to the promise of incremental progress if you sell your soul to a stint in the City.
A sense of place forms a sense of self and this has numerous benefits on both an individual and societal level.
But geographical mobility is place-blind. ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from’. Of course, we all know that it does. Why do we all want to be buried in our ‘home towns’? While I am not advocating for place-based discrimination, it is unaviodably true that where you come from forms your identity in a deep and meaningful way.
Enabling this sense of place to ground young people in a community hits the objectives of geographical mobility, without the bike.
The committee took evidence from The Local Trust who found that deprived areas lack assets such as community centres, pubs or village halls. Geographical mobility says run. The report calls for something different.
There is an important role for civil society organisations, such as youth clubs and youth services, working with schools and families to build social capital and provide positive role models for disadvantaged young White people.
It is these key institutions that facilitate strong local relationships which have the power to inspire young people to progress. Instead of being place-blind we need to be place-makers.
The report focussed on white working class pupils, finding that 53% of FSM-eligible White British pupils met the expected standard of development as opposed to 61% and 64% of FSM-eligible Black Caribbean and Black African pupils respectively.
Again, local assets can foster inclusivity in an age of increasing division. Of all the competing ‘identities’ that collide and clash in the culture wars, places have a neutralising effect. We are Grimsby, Frome or Kendal. And you’re one of us.
Take libraries, when it comes to access and diversity, they have some of the best stats of any institution.
Ultimately, geographical mobility might satisfy a spreadsheet tracking work and pay figures. But we have come to the end of obsessing over indicators which don’t mean what they say. In-work poverty and the gig economy confuses things. Are things getting actually better?
True social mobility means investing in places, economically and socially, for the two are intertwined. This might mean state aid or simply building the community centres from scratch such as family hubs (which the report also champions).
The committee is on to something. Let’s design a social mobility strategy that starts with the places where people live and enjoy proximity to their family and community and can lead connected and interdependent lives.