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The Policy Ask with Sarah Atkinson: “We need to level the playing field”

The chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation on what needs to be done to provide opportunity for the most talented, no matter their background.

By Spotlight

Sarah Atkinson is the chief executive at the Social Mobility Foundation, an organisation breaking down socio-economic barriers by supporting young people. Its Aspiring Professionals Programme welcomes thousands of young people each year to promote social mobility, as well as encouraging employers to create more diverse workplaces. She was previously director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission for five years.

How do you start your working day?

I usually start the day, as I suspect many charity CEOs do, listening to the Today programme. It’s helpful to get a heads-up on anything likely to shift my focus that day. While I’m listening, I attempt to choose an outfit my tween daughter won’t criticise. It’s a tough challenge to begin the day!

What has been your career high?

I’m so lucky to be able to talk to the young people we work with regularly. They all face challenges, but often you’d never know; they’re so positive and ready for the future. So, it’s lovely to be recognised for the small part we play in their lives. Receiving the Queen Elizabeth II platinum jubilee volunteering award was a definite high.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Leading the charity through the pandemic was a big challenge. I’d only been CEO for ten weeks when we went into lockdown, and I was so worried – but the team were magnificent. Their experience and determination to meet our commitment to the young people we support carried us through. As is often the case, these challenges leave you stronger and help you work smarter.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Asking for help isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. When I went back to work after maternity leave, I lost my confidence. I should have admitted I needed help instead of trying to power through. Successful people invariably have a great support network. This is something we support our students to develop – we all need someone to lean on.

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Which political figure inspires you, and why?

I instinctively admire women who break ground for others. Barbara Castle is one of those women. She was an influential, reforming politician, but she did it on her own terms, navigating a very male environment without aping the men. It’s important to be true to yourself and your values regardless of the environment you find yourself in.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right, and why?

One policy area that needs more attention across the political spectrum is closing the education attainment gap between children living on lower and higher incomes. No political party has nailed this, although the government was right to focus on tutoring. But an effective tutoring offer needs long-term commitment, more resources, and to be targeted at those who need it most.

And what policy should the UK government scrap, and why?

When I tell people that charities often pay VAT, I regularly get a double take. Charities aren’t there to make money but to serve their communities, often doing so on a shoestring with an army of volunteers. Despite this, charities pay about £1.8bn in irrecoverable VAT – I would scrap it or find a way to reduce the burden.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to, and why?

Creating system-wide change can be an uphill struggle. That’s why the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent consultation on equality and diversity gave us all a boost. We’re hoping they’ll mandate financial firms to collect socio-economic background data on their employees. This could be as big a game-changer for class as gender pay gap reporting has been for women.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Although it’s good to look internationally for inspiration, in my view, we don’t need to go that far. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales is offering a much-needed counterweight to the short-termism of politics. The focus on equality, which includes socio-economic background, is the direction of travel we need in Westminster.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

This is an easy one. Employers tell us that what gets measured, gets done. That’s why a mandate on socio-economic reporting for all public and private firms with over 250 employees could shift the dial on equality in the workplace. Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not, which is why more needs to be done to level the playing field.

[See also: Parkrun founder: “It’s everybody’s right to be active and healthy”]

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