Back

Professor Lee Elliot Major OBE On social mobility

Lee Elliot Major is the country’s first Professor of Social Mobility, and the former chief executive of the Sutton Trust, an educational charity and foundation. In his role at Exeter University, Major is dedicated to improving the prospects of disadvantaged young people and works closely with schools, universities, employers and policy makers. He is also the co-author of ‘Social Mobility and Its Enemies’ (Penguin, 2018) and the forthcoming book, ‘What Works?’ with Steve Higgins. Having dropped out of school, Major worked in a petrol station and as a street-cleaner before turning his life around. He was the first in his family to attend university and now holds three degrees, including a PhD in theoretical physics. He was awarded an OBE in this year’s Queen’s Honours for services to social mobility.

“Social mobility for me is a personal and professional passion”
When I was 15, my prospects didn't look great. I had left home after my mum and dad split up, dropped out of school and was living in London on social security. What turned things around for me was people. I was working in a petrol station in Richmond and a mate came in to say he was going back to school. He said I should come along as well. It was as simple as that – a best mate encouraging me. His parents, an architect and a teacher, also took me in. It was my first introduction to middle class life and was very influential. The company you keep is so important: having people around you that open your eyes to different routes in life.

“It's not just who you're born to, but where you're born”
Place is so important. I now live in Tufnell Park. My children will, simply by where they live, know people that will be able to help them in life. If you don't have these connections or social capital, your eyes aren't going to be open to opportunities. What's the point of doing well at school if there's nothing out there beyond that? This is the main challenge, can we create social mobility in the creative industries in places that aren't London?

“Business leaders must lead the way”
I am the first professor of social mobility and people in the workplace are increasingly saying, we want to attract talent from different backgrounds - how do we go about doing it? My advice is to look at your data. Who have you got in your organisation at different levels? How do you define talent? Often in the more creative industries, it's very informal and leaders don't really determine what they want. There should be an explicit expectation made. Otherwise different proxies are made to determine talent that aren't actually connected, such as confidence or the ability to drop in clever cultural references. Ask yourself, are these signs of talent or just privilege?

“The creative industries are way behind because it's harder to nail down what creative talent is”
This tends to be an excuse and the creative industries could learn a huge amount from other sectors. Diversity should be fundamental to any business. The reason why is because there's a strong business case for it! If you get people from different backgrounds in, it will improve your business. Challenging the status quo is well worth it but you can't go in half-heartedly on social mobility. Embrace it.

“We need to rethink what ‘success’ means”
We are obsessed with academic attainment and a one-size-fits-all education system. We have forgotten about those who are more creatively minded or vocationally oriented. There is no system that nurtures them, which is why art and music are waning as subjects at school. Most successful creatives I know didn't go to university. The creative industry has rejected the Oxbridge model. But instead they rely on networks or people you know. We're failing a lot of younger children for that reason.

“I firmly believe that if you've got enough will and energy, you can make it”
I had to learn the hard way that if you really want to do something, you must push. It's about being resilient and not taking it personally. When I talk to other people who have become successful against the odds, beneath all the rhetoric is usually someone who's worked hard and been resilient. If you want something enough, even with the hardships today, I believe there is always a way of getting through. Replace ‘Not for the likes of me’ with ‘have a go’, that’s what I learnt. Although figures for social mobility are increasingly depressing for the younger generation, there is a general desire across society to rebalance things. I believe there are enough people who feel positive to make things change – and I sense change.