Opening pathways to the top: Rushanara Ali MP

Written by
Mary Appleton

10 Dec 2014

10 Dec 2014 • by Mary Appleton

Championing diversity

As the UK’s first MP of Bangladeshi origin, Rushanara Ali is well placed to champion diversity. The daughter of immigrants, she was brought up in East London, attended state schools (and later Tower Hamlets College), and won a place at Oxford University.

“When I went to look around [Oxford University] I met this Bangladeshi student and I really connected with her,” she says. “Seeing her there and being successful made the place seem more real. She had a common background with me – that helped to diffuse the negatives about Oxford. But not everybody gets to be inspired by people who have something in common with them, which is why I want to help.”

Outside of her role as an MP, Ali looks for ways to open up systems of power and privilege for talented young people from all backgrounds, helping them to access networks through role models and mentors. This is the aim of her charity, UpRising, which she founded in 2008.

“Nothing should be beyond someone’s reach just because of their background,” she says. “Often working-class young people, including graduates, miss out as they don’t have the soft skills employers are looking for or the connections to help them into work. We must do more to bridge that gap.” 

Addressing inequality

Ali began her career as a research assistant to the social reformer Lord Young of Dartington, working on a project that paved the way for the establishment of Tower Hamlets Summer University (recently renamed Futureversity), which offers independent learning programmes for young people aged 11-25 through the arts. From 1997 to 1999 she was parliamentary assistant to Oona King, who was then MP for Bethnal Green and Bow – a position Ali inherited and has held since May 2010.

She has also worked at the Foreign Office (where she helped to set up the Forced Marriage Unit), the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Home Office, where she led a work programme to mobilise local and national agencies in the aftermath of the 2001 riots in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham.

She is hugely frustrated by the “immense lack of equality” that she feels still characterises education, politics and business today.

“Those in parliament and big business tend to be white, middle-class men,” she asserts. “In some sectors there are now women, and in others even ethnic minorities have broken in, but there’s still a massive problem with people who are being left behind – including young people from white working-class backgrounds who are lagging behind other groups, particularly in education.”

While only 7% of the population attend private school, 54% of FTSE 100 chief executives were privately educated. Meanwhile, 70% of high court judges, 49% of top doctors and almost half of the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics went to private school.

You can do this, and this is how

Over the past five years, UpRising has worked with hundreds of young adults. It runs a range of leadership programmes for 16- to 25-year-olds, helping them to develop their passion for social action, digital campaigning and making a difference in their communities. “If you are passionate about something in the community that you want to change, we help you learn skills so you can present your case, put forward a campaign and articulate your media message,”explains Ali.

“It’s about saying to young people: ‘Yes, you can do this, and this is how.’ We’re helping people make big decisions. If you don’t have connections and know-how it’s often very difficult to achieve, despite your talents, and that’s what we are trying to change.” 

Developing employability skills

‘Fastlaners’ is a careers and employability programme supporting 16- to 18-year-olds from Tower Hamlets and unemployed graduates from across East London. Participants meet professionals from a range of industries, receive mentoring support, participate in CV clinics and undertake mock interviews with recruitment professionals. They also receive coaching in skills such as giving presentations, and have access to work experience opportunities. “Many people are just not learning how to get into work,” says Ali. “Simple things we take for granted such as how to tone an email, how to dress, how to speak – are all covered to help them understand what work means.”

Ali is keen to ensure UpRising is not just London-centric. Programmes have been running in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bedford, Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, which came to her attention partly through her work at the Home Office.

“Many people leave these areas to look for employment elsewhere,” she says. “It’s important for people to feel rooted and that they can do stuff in their own towns. It leads to investment in those areas.”

Schools and education

More broadly, Ali believes that the challenges around lack of work experience are having a knock-on effect on social mobility. “It’s just not a level playing field,” she says.

Ali is naturally critical of the current government and she is sceptical that employers alone can fill the gap in careers guidance: “There needs to be reform within the education system to ensure every young person has access to independent careers advice.”

She would like to see a highly valued, prestigious vocational training system to ensure that “the forgotten 50%” (Labour leader Ed Miliband’s term for those who choose not to enter higher education) have a proper pathway to progression and the skills to do so.

“The new workforce will [on average] change jobs up to 20 times in their lifetime, which is radically different to previous generations,” she comments. “Developing flexible skills is imperative, so the training and education system absolutely has to be geared towards this. Young people have had reason to be pretty pessimistic in the past few years, and it’s time that changed.”