Bonding social capital is a powerful force; we ignore it at our peril

Last week was exciting for social mobility wonks, as five separate publications emerged exploring the state of social mobility in the UK.

First, there was the Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 barometer, which found “deep unease in many regions” about the opportunities to make progress while staying put. Next, the Sutton Trust released a paper on research commissioned from the LSE that found that the best way to be socially mobile was to grow up, and stay put, in London. On the same day, Education and Employers released results from another poll of UK young people, whose expectations and interests as far as careers go continue to be out-of-step with the labour market (City & Guilds found the same thing in 2015).

In Scotland, the Commissioner for Fair Access identified that representation of students from the most deprived areas is lower at postgraduate level than at first degree level, and an Audit Scotland investigation of student maintenance loans noted that disadvantaged students tend to have more loan debt, and questioned the long term impact on those students’ wellbeing.

On Thursday, four more reports were released: the first an evidence synthesis commissioned by the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO, the establishment of which we are both involved in), exploring the state of the evidence into the effectiveness of initiatives to improve access to higher education. In a similar vein, the National Educational Outreach Network (NEON) published a paper on suggestions from leads of the higher education National Collaborative Outreach Programme for the future of the programme. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) also published an essay collection, the third instalment in an accidental trilogy on selective education, and the Social Mobility Commission returned again with a review by the Learning and Work Institute into the evidence on attainment-raising in further education.

There’s a lot to comb through there; evidently, as a couple of the publications explicitly note, the unfairness of the UK education system has been bumped up the policy agenda recently owing to its intrusion into the political sphere.

Bridging social capital is important…

One common thread that runs through all these publications is the importance of social capital in education (on which we wrote a book last year). Social capital refers to the resources, tangible and intangible, that we can access by virtue of our place in the social world: through our family and friends we are able to access resources like social support, advice and money; through our identities we can find belonging and trust with people we don’t know.

Bridging social capital builds links between people of different backgrounds, while bonding social capital strengthens the links between those in the same social groups. Implicitly, research on social mobility focuses on bridging social capital. Encounters with friends of the family, employers or widening participation schemes can provide a “bridge” from a young person’s network into previously unconsidered opportunities and thus expand their education and career horizons. Research suggests that young people will tend to aspire to opportunities they can imagine themselves in, and proximate access to bridging social capital into university or higher-paying jobs may be why low-income Londoners are most fortunate when it comes to social mobility.

Likewise, selective education can simultaneously be good and bad for social mobility because of the way it changes the bridging social capital of disadvantaged young people: those few who get into a grammar school may gain access to the social capital of their advantaged peers; but the large majority who don’t get in lose access to that capital and the bridges it might create for them. In their contributions to the HEPI essay collection, Dickson & Macmillan, and Sullivan, argue that the consequences of the latter for the many overpower the benefits of the former for the few.

…but so is bonding social capital

However, the Sutton Trust research finding that over two thirds of socially-mobile people across the UK haven’t moved away from where they grew up highlights the importance of bonding social capital generated by close networks of family and friends. This form of social capital can be implicitly undervalued by those working on social mobility, as it may not carry the kind of information or other resources that help someone study effectively, weigh up career and study options, or prepare an outstanding personal statement. Sometimes, bonding social capital can also make people want to stay where they are and conform to expectations.

Bonding capital can provide other things, not least the belonging and social support that provide a safe base for someone to venture out from as they explore new opportunities. In the seminal US “Moving To Opportunity” study, which paid for thousands of families to move to more affluent neighbourhoods, the impacts on people who were teenagers at the time of the move were actually negative on some outcomes – seemingly because the bonds they had already developed with their peers and neighbours were destroyed by the move.

These networks can also be strengthened, as one of the studies highlighted in the Learning and Work Institute report found: as part of the Adult Skills and Knowledge research centre, on which we both worked, a trial tested the effectiveness of encouraging FE learners to nominate a “study supporter” to receive weekly messages about what they were studying – equipping their existing network to support them better. The trial found that those whose supporters were texted were significantly more likely to pass their exams than those whose supporters weren’t texted.

Bonding social capital can also exist between people of similar backgrounds even if they’ve never met each other. Grammar school advocates received the support of former prime minister Theresa May who had herself gone to a grammar school, and each student who studies A levels and goes on to a highly selective university gains access to the social capital generated by the large number of Russell Group alumni working in the public sphere.

Many of our efforts to improve social mobility in Britain (and elsewhere), focus on opportunities to bridge into new environments – through increasing university places, providing role models and representatives of other careers, and even bursaries that make moving away from home more affordable. The picture emerging out of last week’s plethora of publications is that this is important, but also that bonding social capital could be a valuable place to focus – and ignored at our peril.

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