How inequalities lock people out of realising their aspirations

Friday 24th March 2023 by Alistair Ross
A close up of a padlocked, green chain link fence

How inequalities lock people out of realising their aspirations

Earlier this year Labour failed in an attempt end the tax breaks many private schools achieve through charitable statuses. This has been a key focus for Kier Starmer in recent months, and his party claimed ending such a move could raise £1.7bn to be spent on teachers, careers advice, and other support for those in state education. Funding would be welcome given the costs schools are facing,  ongoing teacher strikes and the impact of Covid-19 but tackling tax breaks doesn’t confront a deeper issue – the innate privileges that filter through everyday life which make it easier for some to succeed and more difficult for others. 

Some of my earliest memories are being tucked up in bed with a cup of milk being read to by my mum or dad. They can’t have known at the time, but they were slowly raising a bookworm. I spent hours with my nose firmly buried in any book I could pick up, and became a keen collector of the badges and bookmarks made available through my local library’s summer “book trail” competition. As I grew up this fascination with those inky squiggles translated into a yearning to master the written word myself, and I dreamt of touring far-flung locations to cover events as a foreign affairs journalist. 

That period of collecting prizes most likely played a part in my decision to study journalism at university many years later and I was fortunate to have a library on my doorstep – no more than a five-minute walk. Others aren’t so fortunate. Almost half the population of England don’t live within a 15-minute walk of the library, and in some Local Authority areas it’s nearly as high as three-quarters. I made a map to explore this data, which you can view here.

I had easily accessible local resources and a strong family support network but others don’t have those privileges. Our recent work in West Yorkshire highlighted the inaccessibility of the region’s extracurricular offers owing to poor transport options and unawareness amongst parents of the clubs and groups available for young people.  

These problems are compounded for those young people suspended or excluded from school who are subsequently severed from in-school support and activities in a single short, sharp slash. In the 2021/22 academic year almost 4,000 young people were permanently excluded from state schools nationwide and more than 350,000 were suspended. These young people also lost access to extra-curricular, school-organised activities which provide new experiences and are crucial to the development of positive aspirations. While enrichment opportunities exist children and young people still miss out if their parents do not know of or advocate for them, or if young people are locked out from accessing them when they need them most.  

Several factors can play a part in exclusions and suspension. Our work in West Yorkshire highlighted young people in the region with a special educational need (SEN) were more than five times more likely to be suspended in some areas. Teachers said the ‘academisation’ of schools was also a factor and drove disengagement from schoolwork by putting added pressure on academic achievement. This is a concern given that the proportion of academies in England has risen from 61% to 80% since 2017. These are two examples of the role external factors can play in life outcomes, and how inequality is played out hourly in our school system. 

We’re currently working in one London borough to assess inequalities in the labour market, and that is painting a vivid picture of how poor access to opportunity can leave individuals lacking the confidence to pursue careers. Residents tell us of childhood dreams to work in the creative or science industries which melted away because they didn’t have a chance to dip their toes into them, felt pressured to opt for other careers, or faced prejudice in application processes.

That isn’t to say there aren’t organisations or institutions willing and able to offer support and help young people hurdle these barriers. The problem is instead that the system is fragmented, with schools, public services, employers and the third sector operating in a cracked and siloed landscape. That fragmentation is unmanageable for young people and the families trying to support them. 

Our work in West Yorkshire highlighted the Career Ready model, which works to provide links between schools and employers, as an effective one, so it was gratifying to see a recent analysis of that model as providing notable economic benefits alongside increased attainment and employability. 

This type of model is required across the board. Local authorities need to identify gaps in their local labour markets, and then work with schools and employers to get young people into extra-curricular activities or work environments to give them new experiences and a flavour for what is possible. Compounding inequalities put the most disadvantaged at risk of losing out. With the country plunging into a cost-of-living crisis we are in danger of making that door of opportunity even harder to see, reach, or open. Through service collaboration and strategy integration we can unlock this door  and throw out a helping hand to usher young people through.

Alistair Ross is a Lead Consultant based in our London office. Prior to working at Rocket Science Alistair studied Politics and International Relations before developing core research and analytical skills as a journalist and market researcher.