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A Passion for Social Mobility

A Passion for Social Mobility

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Valerie Le Vaillant, who recently became Master of the Company of Architects, has announced that apprenticeships are to be her major focus for the year. This is a subject close to my heart. I am as passionate about social mobility as others rightly are about race and gender equality. To me social mobility embraces all types of inequality and disadvantage. As a member of Valerie's Education Committee under John Assael as Chair, I will do everything I can to help.

I am conscious that I was incredibly fortunate to be born just before the 1960s. I had access to opportunities which were not affordable to my parents’ generation, who in their late teens, had all caught the middle and end of World War 2. This defined the background of my generation but in the 60s everything changed. It was as though a world which had been lived in black and white suddenly exploded into colour.

In a flash, the working class had role models of high achievers in the arts and sciences.

Paul McCartney and George Harrison were working class kids from Liverpool who met at grammar school and found the world hanging on to every word they said. Luckily for the establishment, they weren’t into revolution, believing all you need is love. In photography, David Bailey and Terence Donovan were tearing up the rule book with people like Twiggy showing for the first time that models have personality too. Alan Bennett, now a national treasure, was a butcher’s son from Leeds before studying at Oxford and challenging the establishment.

Things would never be the same again, but have they really changed outside of the arts? Research conducted by the Law Society has shown that 65% of new apprenticeship places are being taken up by children with parents in the professions. And research by the London School of Economics shows social mobility in the professions is not rising. Only 10% of doctors come from non-skilled backgrounds, 15% of architects.

I recently visited the architecture gallery at The Royal Academy. One of the contributions on the future of architecture said “When you get through the door, wedge it open for others”. It inspired me to revisit what I and what Weston Williamson + Partners do to promote social mobility.

I am conscious of my own good fortune, but all too aware that the fantastic free education I had is no longer available.

The character trait that I most prize about myself is my inquisitiveness, wanting to know how the world works. I’m constantly amazed and intrigued and was the same as a child. A few key people recognised this trait at school and encouraged it; I passed my 11+, had the most fantastic education at Ilkeston Grammar School, with a brilliant science teacher, Dr Spiby and an inspirational art teacher, Dr Venning. They inspired me to study and opened the door to Architecture.

I was like many of my generation, the first in my family to study for a degree. With hindsight getting not just a free education but also being paid a grant to live off was incredible.

How things have changed. I know my mum would not have allowed me to study at my own expense. Getting into debt was just not acceptable. Attitudes are different now, I know, but I have a terrible feeling that even now children in similar circumstances are dissuaded from studying because education is too expensive. I understand the argument that students should invest in their education, not the state. But this doesn’t acknowledge the aversion to debt which is still common in some parts of society.

And if my architectural education cost say £100k, it has been repaid many times over in income tax throughout my 40 year career. I started my architectural education in 1973. They were halcyon days of free education which are long gone; today’s the numbers of university students make any return prohibitively expensive.

An alternative needs to be found and for many that alternative can be apprenticeships. At Weston Williamson we sponsor some students though university and currently have three students on apprenticeship courses.

These offer education both at the workplace and at the university and allow for individual projects and research work, together with group working.

I would like us to be able to do more but the courses are not yet available for first degrees. We take part in local initiatives inviting school children into the studio to learn about our business, architecture and engineering through schemes such as the Engineering Education Trust and Open City.

Some of the 16 and 17 year olds from deprived backgrounds have expressed interest in architecture as a career and it would be great if some of the apprenticeship levy monies could be used to facilitate this. These are the initiatives I will be pushing for and working together with employers, the industry, education providers and the RIBA to achieve real change. Ideas and suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, thank you Paul, George, John and Ringo, Twiggy and lots of others for pushing the door open and encouraging us to pile through.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.