skip to main content

Tracy Brabin MP, Ed Vaizey MP and Lord Clement-Jones led the first session of the ‘Breaking the Class Ceiling’ inquiry, looking at what social mobility means, the challenges facing people from working class backgrounds, and how big organisations are attempting to meet them.

Defining social mobility

“Social mobility can be thought of as the movement from one position or social strata in society to another,” explained Dr Louise Ashley (Senior Lecturer, Royal Holloway). This can be absolute, which means the total movement from one class to the next, or relative, the chance to move from one class relative to another person of the same class.

It’s relative social mobility that measures how much fluidity there is in society – and the research suggests that this is not the UK’s strong point. “Consensus is that social mobility is at best stagnant, and at worst declining in the UK,” said Dr Sam Friedman (Associate Professor at LSE, and author of ‘The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged’).

Actress Valerie Edmonds described her experiences; “I’m poor and it’s really really hard. It’s really hard. You have to overcome just to get even… just to get to the starting block.”

Bank of Mum and Dad

Parental resources are particularly important in the creative sector, highlighted Friedman, where the bank of Mum and Dad can provide “insulation in the early and often mid-part of people’s careers.”

That is in part due to the string of unpaid or low paid work people do in order to get a foot in the door, or support their careers.

Friedman also suggests that people entering the creative sector often need to be in London, which is hugely unaffordable for those from a low income background.

Access to opportunity

“We’re looking at application procedures and how we’re judging people,” said Alan Davey (Controller of BBC Radio 3 and the Proms), who raised concerns about unconscious bias and the difficulties eliminating it completely.

Nicola Crowther (BBC Head of Public Engagement, BBC Audiences, and Diversity & Inclusion Specialist) highlighted some of the steps they are taking to position the BBC as a place for everyone. For example, schemes such as BBC Introducing and Young Reporter are key to identifying new talent and enabling people to take their first steps in their careers.

“One of the key things people lack is networks,” said Davey. It’s not just professional networks, but staff networks too.

“There’s no quick fix for this. We just have to keep on at it and keep on at it and keep on at it and gradually the net will widen,” Davey told the inquiry.

Kids playing instruments, in black and white

On music

“You need to have levels of expertise, access to the training, access to the instruments, and support to get wherever your talent takes you,” said Davey on access to careers in music.

“Yes it is a problem, and it is a complex problem, but it’s not just classical music,” he added, highlighting challenges faced by young musicians across all areas of the music industry.

“Speaking personally, I am very worried about music education and getting the musicians of tomorrow,” said Davey. BBC Introducing and 10 Pieces are two programmes he says are having a real impact.

Being yourself

“There’s a sort of sense of behavioural codes,” said Friedman, that actively exclude those from a working class background.

These codes are informal, often based on the people who historically undertook that work, and embedded in workplace cultures. And they take a huge amount of time and energy to master – Friedman talks about people who have changed their accent to fit in.

“People talk about not bringing their full selves to work, and having to pretend to be someone else,” said Davey on the same issue.

The class pay gap

The resulting class pay gap is real.

People from a working class background who work in professional and managerial occupations, including the performing arts, earn on average 16% less than colleagues from more privileged backgrounds, Friedman told the inquiry.

Women and BAME workers are at a double disadvantage, with an even bigger disparity in pay.

Finding the right solutions

While outreach and inclusion programmes are well intentioned, Ashley highlighted difficulties tracking the impact that they have. Often they are not evidence based and not measured by outcomes. As such, while programmes can be excellent and well intentioned, they may not be having the desired results.

In some cases, Ashley explained that outreach policies can have the opposite effects of those intended. Participating in an outreach programme can reinforce the feeling that people are in an environment that they do not belong.

Access is not about your point of entry to the workplace, said Ashley, but what comes before that. While there are things organisations can do to increase access, social mobility is about the cumulative impact of everything in your life. These are affected by Government policy and other factors that organisations are not best placed to fix.

But there are things organisations can do to identify specific problems and solve them, she argued. They should also be collecting data and being transparent about it.

Harriet Finney highlighted the BFI’s own monitoring, which includes socio-economic disadvantage.

For Edmonds, the solution is simple. Socio-economic disadvantage must be included in the Equality Act as a protected characteristic. “That’s the only thing, in my view, that will make a difference,” she said.

Want to know more about social mobility?

Find out more via the Performers’ Alliance Facebook Page – including the official account of the session coming soon.

Photo ofAutumn Sharkey
Thanks to

Autumn Sharkey

Get MU membership today

From gig players to part-time teachers and professional instrumentalists, MU members can access specialist insurance for musicians. This includes accident cover, health schemes, travel insurance and car insurance add-ons through the Musicians’ Union.

Explore our member services

  • Get public liability insurance for musicians
  • Access expert legal support
  • Be represented in your profession
  • Access expert career advice, resources, and training events
  • Connect, network, and get to know the community of musicians

Learn about all membership benefits

Get MU membership today

Continue reading