For those without family connections, professional qualifications are a lifeline

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR (BRAND), ACCA

LAST week, Nick Clegg launched the government’s new social mobility strategy to great fanfare. With slightly more fanfare, the press and opposition skipped over the strategy and focused on Clegg’s use of unpaid interns and the parental help he’d had to start his career. Amusing headlines – not if you’re Nick Clegg – but there’s an important point being missed.

Over the coming decades, the UK has a hard task to maintain its place in the global economy. Developing economies have joined the competition at the top-end of the global economy, while traditional big beasts – the US, Germany – aren’t giving up their positions without a fight.

If the UK wants to maintain its position then it needs to up its game in terms of productivity. Without improvements to social mobility though, this will be an uphill struggle: a lack of social mobility means wasted talent. A 2010 report by the Sutton Trust estimated that weakening the link between background and achievement could be worth up to £140bn to the UK economy per year by 2050.

With so much at stake, criticisms of how someone got a job a quarter of a century ago seem insignificant compared to what the strategy for the future actually is.

And we do need a strategy. Today, British children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their better off peers to reach the expected level of attainment in their school careers. Just one in nine of those with parents from low income backgrounds reach the top income quartile, whereas almost half of those with parents in the top income quartile stay there.

For many children in today’s Britain, their future career is mapped out by the circumstances of their birth. For the poorest, top careers are closed off, and the opportunity to contribute their full potential to society is wasted. The individual loses out, we all lose out.

The new government strategy creates an independent commission on social mobility that will report to parliament, while a set of indicators will be included in departmental business plans; there’s also a social mobility business compact.

Alongside other professional bodies, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects, and employers such as Channel 4, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, ACCA has signed up to the compact.

The compact commits its signatories to boosting social mobility as employers, but for professional bodies a lot more work can be done as gateways to the professions.

The type of people entering the professions is a good indicator of social mobility. Professions are usually well-respected and well-paid. Looking purely at pay – admittedly only one indicator of a good or desirable job – a newly qualified ACCA accountant can expect to earn roughly £40,000 a year, according to trade-paper Accountancy Age.

But artificial barriers still make it hard for people from poorer backgrounds to enter professions such as accountancy.

Within the accountancy profession worldwide, there is still an emphasis on graduate entry, especially for registered auditors. Many bodies around the world maintain university degrees, or equivalent, as minimum entry requirements, and many require specific accounting and business qualifications.

This would be fair if university access was linked to natural talent, but as the statistics above show, background still plays too much of a role. Talented young people with poor support in their early years find their options dry up when they leave school. Talent and potential remain untapped.

ACCA has always disagreed with this approach and was founded in 1904 with the express intent of breaking open access to the professions; indeed, our efforts to promote social mobility through our qualifications were recognised by the Cabinet Office’s 2009 Access to the Professions panel. Professional bodies should give individuals a fresh start when progressing towards a qualification. What can be achieved rather than what has already been achieved should matter more.

The ACCA Qualification is equivalent to a Masters degree in the UK. Additionally, while working towards the qualification, students have the opportunity to earn a BSc degree in applied accounting from Oxford Brookes University. It takes years of hard work and rigorous training to complete the ACCA Qualification, but there is no reason to place it out of reach for those wanting to study it in the first place. For those students that don’t meet the minimum entry requirements, foundation level qualifications are on offer to help students work their way towards eligibility.

Professional qualifications can be the passports of social mobility, recognising talent, not background. There are several steps that can be taken by professional bodies and government to make this a reality.

Professional bodies need to remove barriers to entering training. Professions should focus on outcomes, not inputs. Nobody should be pre-judged before even attempting to pass a tough qualification.

Linked to this is the idea of multiple entry points. With varying levels of past education, some will need more support than others to achieve final qualifications. There is a roughly 50:50 split in ACCA’s student body between graduates and non-graduates, with exemptions available for graduates and extra opportunities for skills development for non-graduates.

Different stages of progression must be recognised with awards. Certificates at a range of points can help motivate students to move onto the next stage. Too often, students give up study because they feel the qualification is too far off.

Flexibility matters too. Qualification design needs to be flexible in terms of the length of time required to qualify, the ways in which the qualification can be studied, and the order in which qualifications are taken and work experience gained.

Finally, there is the problem of the poor quality of careers advice in state schools. Information and guidance about equally worthwhile, non-university career paths is often inadequate and the professions and other options end up almost invisible to young people. Government needs to recognise and promote professional qualifications as a valuable alternative to university.

The professions are a force for good when it comes to social mobility. Government hasn’t always been quick to recognise this, but the new strategy could mark a turning point. This development should be supported, not sidelined.