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Alun Francis - what social mobility means to me

Social Mobility Awareness Day 2022 written in black on a yellow circle
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Organised by social mobility charity Making the Leap, the first Social Mobility Awareness Day takes place on 16 June 2022.  The idea is to promote wider conversations about social mobility and to celebrate the organisations committed to bringing about positive change.

Alun Francis, Deputy Chair of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) and Principal and Chief Executive of Oldham College shares with us what social mobility means to him.  


“I grew up in Wales in a seaside town with few jobs and a lot of social and economic challenges.  During my secondary school years my parents were on welfare.  We lived in a council house on the Peulwys Estate in Colwyn Bay, and like so many other young people, leaving for University gave me a way forward.  Since then, I have followed a varied career in higher education, local government, urban regeneration, and youth work – living in both the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.  I have spent the past twelve years working at Oldham College.  It has many of the same challenges as the town I grew up in – although there are few big differences as well.  The main common theme is that both need more opportunities for those who want to stay.  And these are economic, social and educational.  This experience shapes a lot about how I think about social mobility and are the reasons that I applied to become a Commissioner.

Last week, Katharine [Birbalsingh, Chair of the Commission] gave her inaugural speech to set out our fresh approach.  In that speech she said that we want to promote a broader view of social mobility, for a wider range of people.  

For me this is really important.  The view that achieving social mobility only means ‘getting to the top’ of a professional firm, probably based in London or the South East, is limiting.  Social mobility should not be restricted to those moving from the ‘bottom’ rung of the social ladder to the top and should certainly not endorse the mantra of ‘leave to achieve’.  

Of course, it’s fantastic when someone’s  hard work and talent leads them into that path – of higher education followed by a professional role – rather than following in the footsteps of their parents.  As too for anyone who actively seeks the bright lights of a big city.  People should be encouraged to aim as high as their talents will take them.  I applaud the work undertaken so far by lots of organisations, many of whom have worked with the SMC to develop guidance and advice for others, and we will continue to work with those organisations to understand what works to remove barriers for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.  

But I see this as a narrow focus which only addresses sharing around a limited supply of opportunities among a few people.  For me, the ambition is to understand and address how we (and I mean the collective ‘we’ here) can create a larger number and wider variety of opportunities that reward a wider range of skills and talents.  These will in turn benefit a larger number of people and places – people like those that my further education college in Oldham serves.  

Without employment, enterprise and the economy, we are never going to be able to address social mobility. It’s employers who choose where they set up their business, the types of job roles they create, and finally how and who they recruit.  During this commission’s tenure, we want to look at the role anchor institutions (large employers anchored in one region) and smaller enterprises can play in creating opportunity, particularly across a large geographical spread.  We want to understand from employers what skills a young person needs to succeed in their workplace – and how we can ensure those skills are being developed within the education framework.  We want to highlight the work of those employers in sectors traditionally associated with low pay who are investing in the skills of their workforce, creating opportunities for their employees to progress out of low pay.  And there is still a role for big business in all of this – after all, their suppliers, clients and customers are those smaller enterprises – working with them can stimulate more opportunities for more people in more places.

Through this work we want to broaden the view of social mobility, and highlight the successes of many who may have travelled shorter distances (both geographically and metaphorically!), but have been able to find and apply their talents in ways that they enjoy and gives them purpose.”

Want to join in the conversation?  Visit Making the Leap’s resources and share your own activities on social media using the hashtag #SocialMobilityDay.