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The Arts and the Social Mobility in Britain report

The Arts and the Social Mobility in Britain report

The latest annual Social Mobility in Britain report paints a stark picture of Britain’s social mobility postcode lottery.

The report, published in late November 2017, uncovers two trends that will be no shock to arts professionals:

  • a “striking geographical divide” between London and its surrounding areas, and the rest of Britain
  • many other parts of Britain being “left behind economically and hollowed out socially”


The Midlands performs particularly badly, with the East and West Midlands as the worst performing regions. More than a third of the local authority areas in the West Midlands and half of the local authority areas in the East Midlands are social mobility coldspots. This trend has shifted from inner city areas as the worst performing areas to remote and coastal areas, and former industrial areas. Lower rates of pay, fewer top jobs and having to travel nearly four times the distance to work as urban residents create much higher barriers for young people growing up in rural areas. It’s not all great news for cities though: Derby and Nottingham are among those listed as “becoming entrenched social mobility coldspots.” Apart from London, English cities are doing badly on social mobility outcomes, with no other city appearing in the top 20% of areas.

The report reveals pockets of poor social mobility in Britain: being in a wealthy area does not guarantee better outcomes. Areas such as West Berkshire deliver worse outcomes for disadvantaged children than much poorer areas, such as Sunderland and Tower Hamlets. Growing up in Oxfordshire, close to West Berkshire, I can testify to the extreme gap between the dreaming spires tourist vision of Oxford and the deprived inner city estates. As organisations like the Ashmolean in Oxford seek highbrow excellence, can they also provide inclusive access to local people in deprived areas? Their Skills for the Future project offered 16 training places to people who had experienced barriers to working in the heritage sector. Similarly to other programmes, an essential criteria was an undergraduate degree and resulting the candidate diversity was poor, particularly for men and Black or Minority Ethnic backgrounds. A more hands-on, holistic approach to raising awareness of museums as places of work amongst local people is needed, as Colchester + Ipswich Museum have proved with their Training Museum model.

Education is a major factor in successful social mobility in Britain. In deprived areas, teachers are 70% more likely to leave. Schools in rural and coastal areas are isolated, with poor partnerships with other schools. The move towards huge academies has not been without teething problems, but the disadvantages of not working together are clear in these findings. The report recommends that local authorities should subsidise transport for disadvantaged young people in isolated areas to support collaboration between schools. There could be an opportunity for cultural venues to facilitate these partnerships, providing cross-curricular activities that facilitate partnership working and social interactions.

In early years, disadvantaged school children are 14 percentage points less likely to be school-ready at age 5 in coldspots. In 94 areas, under half of disadvantaged children reach a good level of development at age 5. This points to another opportunity for arts venues to engage local young families with free activities. Touring Exhibition Group’s recent research demonstrates a lack of provision for under 5s in arts programming but also the opportunity to share exhibitions in a very close proximity, as families with young children are unlikely to travel more than a few miles. This is something Culture Syndicates are exploring with the development of a touring exhibition service to enable cultural venues to share exhibitions. To get involved or learn more, contact us on info@culturesyndicates.co.uk.

Another major focus of the report is fairer career routes. In Kensington and Chelsea, 50% of disadvantaged young people go to University. This figure is just 10% in Hastings, Barnsley and Eastbourne. 1% of young people are NEET (not in education, employment or training) one year after GCSEs in North Hertfordshire but this figure is one quarter in South Ribble, the worst local authority area. With the development of a Curator Apprenticeship standard, Culture Syndicates are currently considering how this can be turned into an economic opportunity for arts organisations. Clearly there are advantages for communities and cultural organisations that can arise from creating paid training posts that meet local authorities’ need to fulfil their Apprenticeship targets. Which developmental agency will lead on workforce development seems unclear as yet. The Mendoza Report states diversifying the heritage workforce as a key priority for the sector but neither of the Tailored Reviews of Heritage Lottery Fund or Arts Council England focus specifically on workforce diversity and talent pipelines in their key recommendations. The Heritage Lottery Fund review does recommend the need to diversify the agency’s own workforce though.

Following the release of the social mobility report, all four remaining members of the Social Mobility Commission have resigned in protest at the lack of progress towards a “fairer Britain.” Their resignation letter cites the government’s inability “to commit to the future of the commission” and lack of capacity to ensure that “the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with reality” due to the focus on Brexit. It is disappointing, although perhaps not surprising, that the Commission have not recognised the role that DCMS and arts funders have to play in a fairer Britain as a key government priority. Now, more than ever, the arts have a duty to contribute so that people in disadvantaged areas have opportunities to thrive. At the coalface, we must actively seek to reduce barriers, such as unnecessary qualification criteria, and position arts organisations as places where everyone can get involved, as audience members, volunteers and workforce.  Cultural organisations must put these communities first and in doing so, create a reputation for doing things differently that embeds them in the heart of civic life.

By Charlotte Pratley, Director at Culture Syndicates

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