Justine Greening: We must nurture diversity to boost social mobility

All our young people have talent and skills. It's up to us to recognise it more broadly and invest in their future

I believe that for Britain in the 21st century, success will be down to whether we make the most of our biggest asset: people. But to do our best, we need a system change to deliver more opportunity. It’s about more than just education – companies are part of the solution too.

One area my Social Mobility Pledge campaign has worked on is getting companies to commit to looking beyond pure academic achievement so that they don’t screen out talented candidates before they’ve even walked through the door.

Academic attainment can only tell you so much about the potential of a young person. It’s inevitably partly a rear-view mirror on where a candidate has come from, not necessarily on where they can get to.

Social Mobility Pledge employers know that the key to success for young people in the workplace is about wider skills – teamwork, resilience, problem solving, the right attitude – more than just getting good grades. More than that the reality is that often young people with less than perfect starts have better developed life skills than those who may have had a smoother path through school.

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Through my Social Mobility Pledge campaign, I’m finding employers who are systematically asking themselves how they can find the ‘rough diamonds’ and help them succeed. Many employers know it’s the right thing to do and in many cases are driven because they also know what it’s like to have to overcome barriers to be successful. I’m not the only one who cares about working to deliver equality of opportunity.

But more than that, their experience is that the young people they bring into their business from backgrounds considered ‘disadvantaged’ are often the ones who do the best too, having been given the chance, so it makes good business sense. It’s a win-win. One City bank told me that due to team feedback, they’d scaled back on their graduate recruitment programme which delivered candidates from a narrower socio-economic background. Instead teams wanted to scale up their school leavers entry scheme which targeted more diverse candidates.

The experience was that those entrants were far more motivated and valued the opportunity more but were also better at dealing with problems resiliently, because that’s what they’ve always had to do through their life. The more diverse teams took better investment decisions. Another employer, a huge travel company, actively recruits young people from so-called more disadvantaged backgrounds for the very same reason – drive and tenacity. They felt it was the key to how they’d become such a successful organisation.

We need to connect this up to the education system far better. That means recognising that for some young people, life might have been more of a challenge and personal developer than any outward-bound scheme, however fantastic that scheme is. Smarter employers have spotted that too. Basically, all our young people have talent and skills. We just need to be able to recognise it more broadly than we’ve done to date, whether academic or life skills development.

Finally, it also means recognising how important this is for young people the furthest away from a level playing field on opportunity – young people out of mainstream education and in alternative provision (AP), as it’s called. Overwhelmingly, these are young people with special educational needs. They’ve faced the biggest challenges and, as a result, they might be the roughest diamonds, but the system needs to work for them too.

As Secretary of State for Education I initiated steps to learn from the very best schools and education in alternative provision to raise outcomes for all the children and young people in AP. It’s crucial that it gets successfully delivered by my successor. We can’t have an education system, let alone an employment system, that overlooks the group for whom opportunity might be the most valuable and transformational.

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For children and young people in alternative provision, I wanted to put in place a smarter strategy, backed up by more resources. It will pay huge dividends in the future, so it’s an investment we’ll all benefit from, especially the young people in AP who need help most. Through the Social Mobility Pledge I’ve found an increasing number of employers who can connect them up with opportunity.

If we can change our collective mindset on what we expect from young people in alternative provision and their education, then we can truly start to unlock their potential too. It’s long overdue. Britain’s success is about all of us, not just some of us.