top of page

CEO of the Sutton Trust, James Turner on improving social mobility and tackling inequality

About James Turner

James is the Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust and has been in post since February 2019. Prior to that, James was Deputy CEO of the Trust’s sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation. He also led the Trust’s £135m bid to set up the EEF in 2011, was its interim CEO and served as a founding Trustee. James worked for ten years previously at the Trust leading policy, research and programme work, latterly as Director of Programmes and Partnerships. In this role he oversaw the foundation of the Trust’s US university programme, the expansion of the UK summer schools and Pathways initiatives, and the development of its pre-16 work through Sutton Scholars. James is also a trustee of The Brilliant Club, the Centre for Homelessness Impact, and a governor of a comprehensive school in the East Midlands, where he lives. Episode Overview CEO of the Sutton Trust, James Turner, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss their work in improving social mobility and tackling inequality in the UK. The Sutton Trust was founded in 1997 and is focused on improving education, social mobility and fighting inequality. They have a wide portfolio of research and program activity, focused on children from their very early years all the way up to young adults in university, workplace and access to the professions. The Sutton Trust differs from many others by combining research and policy advocacy work alongside practical programmatic work. These two aspects build on each other and help inform and establish credibility. The Sutton Trust reach circa 6,000 people each year, and through policy and working with government they have a much bigger impact beyond that. They’re particularly interested in social mobility on the high end; looking at who are the future leaders in society and who are taking the top jobs, the most prestigious and influential jobs. This is because the people in these strata of society have such an impact on society that it really matters that they are representative of society at large, as opposed to representing the wealthy and affluent. It’s important not only to support research into these policy areas but also to put effort into ensuring this research gets strong coverage in the media, since this helps get policymakers interested and engaged. The Sutton Trust have never been afraid to ruffle feathers or be controversial or provocative when necessary. When James got into this space, the term ‘social mobility’ was very much a technical term, used almost exclusively within academia. It is only more recently, since the early 2000s, that it has entered mainstream discourse and, now, it has really become much more prevalent and visible in government strategy documents and press releases – even to the point where it now almost suffers from being used too much. Intergenerational mobility and transfer of poverty: James notes there is a broadly embraced view that social mobility in the UK is not as high as it should be and it’s not as high as in other countries. Education is a key driver for this and what one’s parents do, how much they earn, what occupation they have, unfortunately, has a big bearing on what their children go on to do. James notes there’s a bit of an arms race in social mobility. Education is such a currency that, understandably, well off parents do all they can to give their young people an advantage, so it’s getting harder for the state to compensate against that. The Sutton Trust has been charting the rise of paid-for private tuition. How much your parents earn dictates a lot what school you go to; on top of this you have a burgeoning private tuition market, which further accentuates this advantage; and now you see this in tertiary education as well – where more and more students are getting degrees – so it’s now about ‘have you obtained a master’s degree, have you obtained a PhD, have you done an internship?’ So, the barriers are increasing. Besides the educational attainment angle, the Sutton Trust has a strong interest in the aspirational and guidance piece so that young people are informed on all the career choices and educational opportunities at their disposal. The advice and guidance teachers give is crucial. Many young people don’t submit applications to some of the top universities because of misperceptions, or because some teachers may not advise their students to apply to some of these top universities for fears they may not fit in – fears which are often unfounded. Part of the challenge is in getting students to submit an application in the first place. James observes that many of the students from disadvantaged backgrounds who end up going to top universities tend to do just as well as their peers and thrive in those environments. Yes, it can be overwhelming to go to Oxford University or Cambridge University if you’ve come from an inner-city state school, so part of the work is on preparing such students for the experience. Also, universities are now much more aware of this and they do try to support such students when they are at university. Things are changing and moving in the right direction. Early childhood matters and education inequality sets in early: research shows that by age 4, children from disadvantaged families are almost a year behind their peers. There are gaps in development, in vocabulary and other factors. And, once children enter the system, these gaps often tend to widen rather than close. The importance of trying to intervene early is crucial. There are various ways to address this and the Sutton Trust is looking at parental engagement as a key factor. What happens at home, not just in the classroom, is highly consequential. The quality of the education itself, not just the fact that young people are in school, is also vitally important. The Sutton Trust are looking for partnerships and supporters. They are a very outward looking international charity looking to exchange notes with interested parties and organisations across the globe. There is much insight that can be shared. They’ve had a longstanding collaboration with the Carnegie Foundation in the US, for instance. The Sutton Trust have learned a lot from the US experience. They’ve also worked with foundations in Australia and Canada as well; they’re always looking at what’s beyond the British Isles and what they should be learning from other countries. James' key takeaway for listeners: he notes that quite often we focus on the negative; on the low social mobility, on the high inequality. But what the Sutton Trust has shown is that change is possible and there are many, many examples of young people who have done incredible things.

Additional Resources


bottom of page