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Why closing the disadvantage gap can benefit everyone

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Jun 2023

On this Social Mobility Day, organisations are being urged to join together in practical action to tackle social disadvantage with dedicated programmes supported by ICAEW.

Without the Department for Education taking faster and more effective recovery action, the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for a long time, damaging the prospects of a generation of children and entrenching disadvantage.

Education recovery in schools in England, a report published last month by the Public Accounts Committee has laid bare the devastating impact of COVID lockdowns on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The disruption to schooling was one of the most serious consequences of the pandemic, the report warns, leading to lost learning for many pupils. Disadvantaged pupils suffered most, wiping out a decade of progress in reducing the gap in attainment between them and their peers. The Department for Education has warned that it could take a decade or more to return the disadvantage gap to pre-pandemic levels. 

Tackling social mobility is a subject close to ICAEW’s heart. ICAEW is a founding member of the Rise Initiative, alongside EY, KPMG, PwC, BDO and Grant Thornton. The scheme, which launched in December 2021, was designed to help overcome the impact of the pandemic on education and to counter the setbacks many pupils faced in their studies, especially developing the essential skills needed for their careers.

Rise teaches communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills to pupils in workshops supported by employer volunteers at schools across the country, with a focus on more deprived schools in disadvantaged areas with fewer opportunities. Over the last two academic years, its workshops have engaged with more than 6,000 young people.

It is not specifically to encourage young people to become accountants, but instead sets out to help young people develop the skills required to succeed in life and work, irrespective of their socioeconomic background and future career choices.

Dave Payne, Head of Access and Volunteer Programmes at ICAEW, said: “Low social mobility is a chronic issue for the UK, which lags behind many other European countries. Research by the Sutton Trust from 2017 estimates that even an increase to average European levels could lead to a 9% increase in GDP, equivalent to £2,600 per person. 

“Aside from the economic argument, there is also the human one. Is it fair that where you are born, or the occupation of your parents, should limit your destination in life, regardless of your potential? This is where businesses have an opportunity to widen their talent pool and level the playing field for young people with ambition but not yet the skills or means to realise it. We are very proud of the work that Rise has already done towards this goal, but we need more organisations of all to get involved so we can realise our vision.”

Social class and nepotism are impacting early career opportunities for young people, according to new research from KPMG UK. The study of 2,000 adolescents found that those from low socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to have gained either formal or informal work experience. When asked about accountancy specifically, nearly half (48%) of those surveyed thought the profession favours those with parents or guardians from a professional background – such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Meanwhile, the Access Accountancy programme is a collaboration of more than 25 organisations and professional bodies including ICAEW dedicated to improving access to, and progression within, the accountancy profession in the UK. Established in 2014, Access Accountancy has delivered more than 5,000 work experience placements to young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Speaking at a joint ICAEW/CIPFA event on social mobility last month, Nik Miller, Chief Executive of social equality consultancy the Bridge Group praised the accountancy sector for collaborative efforts to tackle socioeconomic diversity. “Of the sectors we work in, accountancy is probably the most progressive – particularly in terms of data collection and sharing.” 

Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, said: “We’re never going to change the systems that hold young people back if we don’t change the way that progression and opportunities in careers work, because these things are all part of the same system.”

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