The UK social mobility gap has widened during COVID-19, with new damage to students’ prospects caused by the flawed marking process put in place in the absence of exams. We look at how employers can step up their efforts; when it matters more than ever.
As students across the UK received their exam results over the past few weeks, thousands were left disappointed.
With exams disrupted by the pandemic, the secondary education sector was faced with the challenge of fairly grading the class of 2020. However, the system that was put in place has been roundly criticised, as many students have had their teacher - predicted grades marked down by a moderating process which has been influenced by schools’ past performance, and class sizes; factors over which each individual student has no control.
This process has been particularly damaging to students’ prospects where they live in disadvantaged parts of the country, with a disproportionate link between results and socio-economic background; students in those schools are more likely to have been marked down than students from more privileged areas.
The level of criticism of all the UK governments and the exam boards has now gained such momentum that there have been reversions to awarding students grades based on their teachers’ original predictions (where those were higher than the moderated grades). Even so, there is continued uncertainty for students (for those wanting to start university this year, the pressures are even higher - some have already accepted offers from universities that were further down their list of choices, and others are concerned that their university of choice will no longer have spaces, despite changed results).
From the employers’ perspective, the issues around exam grading have also put a spotlight on recruitment practices. There is already much debate in the social mobility conversation as to whether academic qualifications are an effective measure of workplace potential, but the current situation has compounded the impact that existing limitations can have on identifying the best talent.
So what can employers do to make sure that a greater commitment to social mobility is prioritised?
- Take the emphasis away from grades. To recruit the very best talent, academic ability should only be part of the picture; there are many other ways that young people entering the workplace can prove themselves to be a strong candidate. This holistic approach has now become more important than ever. For example, the Shoosmiths training contract application looks at four equally weighted parts; academics, employment history and work experience, answers to questions, and extra (including spelling and grammar). The minimum academic criteria is currently CCC at A level, and a degree in any subject (or equivalent), so as not to create unnecessary academic barriers.
- Look for potential, not postcodes. As employers rethink their approaches to flexible working, and physical requirements to be in offices, it is also a good time to also think about where talent attraction efforts are. Reaching out to students outside of traditional city radiuses and using technology creatively to extend reach are both good areas to focus on.
- Be a champion of opportunity. There are lots of ways to promote social mobility, both within an organisation and outside of it. The Social Mobility Foundation run an annual benchmarking exercise across sectors; assessing the quality of actions taken by organisations to find, recruit, and retain talented individuals from all backgrounds, and how well they are advocating for social mobility e.g. through internal initiatives, campaigns, and supporting their supply chains. The Social Mobility Pledge, founded by former UK Cabinet Minister, Rt Hon. Justine Greening, and entrepreneur David Harrison, now has over 500 signatories around the country – which are all stepping up their efforts. Since becoming signatories, Shoosmiths have been working closely with the Pledge to develop a Social Mobility Action Plan which reflects the firm’s national footprint.
The UK has a lot of work to do to close its social mobility gap. There are signs of progress, and social mobility is increasingly a strategic priority for businesses. However – we need to be aware of the challenges that COVID-19 has brought with it, and the algorithmic flaws that this round of exams has brought to national attention. Businesses now need to work together to overcome these, to navigate ongoing uncertainty, and to ensure equal opportunities for those trying to make the transition from education into employment at this time.