Britain is about as socially mobile as anywhere
I saw a report last week, which I put aside to read later, assuming that it would be reported prominently in the next day’s newspapers. It made the important argument that Britain is, contrary to what most people think, a socially mobile country.
What a tribute to the power of herd thinking, then, that Peter Saunders’s study for the Civitas think tank, Social Mobility Delusions, went unreported in the British press when it was published last Thursday.
Nearly everyone thinks that Britain is near the bottom of the world league table for social mobility, and the chances of people who are born into poor families doing well in life are getting worse.
Neither is necessarily true.
Saunders takes issue with research published by the Sutton Trust, which says that Britain compares badly with other countries when social mobility is assessed by the similarity between parents’ and children’s incomes:
Even the Sutton Trust admits it is impossible to say with any confidence whether Britain ranks above or below countries like Sweden, the USA, Australia or France.
On mobility measured by comparing the educational attainment of parents and their children, Saunders says:
Statistics on educational mobility do not back up the Sutton Trust’s insistence that Britain is at the bottom of the international league table (even though it says they do). The OECD ranks Britain 9th out of 30 on one measure (the extent to which children’s educational attainment is independent of their parents’ socio-economic status), 2nd out of 17 on another (how far years of schooling of parents and children differ), in the middle of the rankings on a third (the probability of a child attending university if their parents are not graduates), and 5th out of 14 on a fourth (the risk of early school leaving, comparing parents and children). A child’s educational performance is no more predictable from its socio-economic background in England than in the OECD as a whole.
As for the suggestion that social mobility is “getting worse” (that is, there is less of it), this comes from one study comparing a cohort born in 1958 with one born in 1970, the finding of which has not been reproduced in other studies. (If it does show declining social mobility, incidentally, we should note that this happened before New Labour in 1997, when the second cohort were aged 27 – that is, long after their future income and status could be much influenced by government policy.)
I don’t wholly agree with Saunders’s conclusion, which is that Britain does not have a social mobility problem but an underclass problem:
The government’s ‘social mobility strategy’ aims to increase social mobility by breaking down ‘barriers’ at the top (e.g. by forcing universities to accept some children on lower grades). Such policies have little relevance to the problems faced by children in the underclass, for their problem is not absence of opportunity, it is neglect. These policies are unlikely to have any significant effect on social mobility rates, which have hardly varied despite fifty years of radical educational upheavals. But they do threaten to do lasting damage to our higher education system, by preventing top universities from recruiting the best students on purely meritocratic principles.
However, I think that there should be more interest in what the facts actually are.Tagged in: class, social mobility
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