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Opinion

Paul McNamee: Bravo Greening, opportunity must be for everyone

The simple, and broad, intention is to allow kids from less well-off areas to have the same life opportunities as their better-off peers

Justine Greening’s Social Mobility Pledge is a very good idea. Yet it passed with little fanfare. This may be an accident of timing. It was publicly birthed last week as all attention trained on the countdown to Brexit. Not that this will derail or deter the pledge. The desire to usher through genuine life chances and to make social mobility mean something underpinned much of Greening’s time as Education Secretary. When she was moved aside in January’s reshuffle, the intention and plans were not stuck in a drawer. Instead, they moved on with intent.

And so it was that last Wednesday Greening unveiled the plan. The simple, and broad, intention is to allow kids from less well-off areas to have the same life opportunities as their better-off peers. It means if you’re talented and smart but the pathways to success are blocked, the blocks will be removed.

Within this comes the pledge. It calls on employers to sign something that says they will attempt to hire solely on talent, rather than on name or school’s reputation. The pledge gets a little complicated when it begins to explain how even though there will be blind hiring (names as numbers so bias doesn’t sneak in) there will at the same time be some weighting in favour of pupils from underperforming schools. But there is momentum. A number of big employers have already signed up, including ITV and Adidas. And Greening, from Rotherham, is making the right noises about targeting deprived areas in the north of England.

There are some legitimate concerns. How can a government that introduced an austerity programme that clobbered the poorest now shift gears to be all about the hand up? And where is the money coming from to make this work effectively? Is this a canny move by Greening to launch a leadership bid – she clearly is at odds with the way her party is being led and after Brexit is started in March 2019, the jockeying for leader of the Tories could begin again in earnest.

These are reasonable questions but should not cloud the inherently smart, good thinking behind the social mobility drive. Where you’re born should not be an impediment to where you end up.

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Over 20 years ago, my old mate Colin Murray and I, neither from anything close to privileged backgrounds, decided to set up a music magazine in Belfast. We had no money, no contacts and, really, no clue. We had very early experience in journalism, and that was that. We found out about grants and soft business loans. We knocked doors. We played every card we could. And it felt like there was opportunity in those days if you knew where to look and how to ask. We took it and while we didn’t know it, we were making ourselves socially mobile. The magazine, called Blank, didn’t last long but I’m proud that all of us involved used it as a springboard to better futures.

That opportunity feels as though it is closing down, that only young people with family money behind them can take risks and break through.

This is why Greening’s initiative is important. I don’t care what party is driving it, though I can’t help but wonder why Labour haven’t come up with something similar, because it’s the result that is important.

Greening is inviting those of us who have enjoyed career success to extend that ladder back and offer a hand up. While there are flaws at present in it, we should relish this chance.

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