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Vince Cable and social mobility

John Rentoul

vince Vince Cable and social mobilityAfter a summer of speculation about the possibility of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, riding to the rescue of, say, a dozen Liberal Democrat seats by taking over the party leadership before the next election, he had the chance to show what he is made of in a speech at the Cass Business School last week.

His subject was “social mobility”, which is not my favourite phrase. It sounds as if it is something everyone should want, but anyone who uses it ought to start by saying what he or she means by it.

To his credit, Cable devoted part of his speech to doing that. He even described it as “what was once a worthy yet amorphous concept”. At least he recognised that social mobility includes downward mobility – “the public school dropout who finishes up in lowly menial job … is also social mobility”, he said. But then he concluded by redefining social mobility as “equality of opportunity”.

This was a bit feeble, especially when Cable described inequality of income and wealth as “a separate argument”. It really is not.

But he made one important point in the speech, which was that the most popular policy to promote social mobility (or, if he prefers, equality of opportunity), namely “early years intervention”, is in danger of being venerated as the holy grail. He said it should be supplemented by education and training throughout life, because adult learning makes life better for older people themselves, and because “later interventions can also improve the chances of future generations”.

He is on to something. I have just caught up with an outstanding paper by John H. Goldthorpe, of Nuffield College, Oxford, called Understanding – and Misunderstanding – Social Mobility in Britain: The Entry of the Economists, the Confusion of Politicians and the Limits of Educational Policy. (Dominic Lawson mentioned it in his fine Sunday Times column today – pay wall.)

It is a brilliant rebuttal of the consensus “in political and also media circles that in Britain over recent decades social mobility has been in decline”, which is based on a single study, that by Blanden et al, 2001, comparing two cohorts born in 1958 and 1970, about which I have written before.

Do read it all. Goldthorpe has a wonderfully dry line in academic put-downs, as in his formulation of Alastair Campbell’s theory of the media “prism”:

The influence has also to be appreciated of what might be called ‘media hysteresis’: i.e. the tendency within the media, once a particular ‘line’ on any issue has become widely accepted, for this line to be maintained as the standard output, regardless of any further inputs.

He points out that the “end of social mobility” thesis appeals not just to journalists but to politicians. Indeed it was first adopted by New Labour to buttress its focus on “education, education, education”; but as the years passed it was adopted by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as a way of saying that Labour had failed to improve mobility.

Goldthorpe’s central message is that the emphasis on education as the promoter of social mobility may be based on a fallacy. The expansion of middle-class jobs in the 1950s to 1970s was the main cause of what Goldthorpe calls higher “absolute” mobility, but that was driven by economic change rather than by better education.

What in this case is significant is the essential constancy of relative rates of class mobility back to the inter-war years: that is, over a period characterised by a series of major educational reforms, all carried through with some degree of egalitarian intent, including the introduction of secondary education for all following the Butler Act of 1944, the increase in the school leaving age to 15 in 1947 and to 16 in 1972, the move from the selective tripartite system of secondary education to comprehensive schools from the later 1960s, the replacement of O-levels by GCSEs in 1988, and two major waves of expansion in tertiary education in the 1960s and 1990s. It is possible that these developments were associated with some – modest – reduction in class-linked inequalities in educational attainment (Breen et al., 2009, 2010), although the issue is still debatable. But there is no indication whatever of them having any impact on mobility. And, in at least one respect, there is now direct evidence that they did not. Boliver and Swift (2011) exploit the fact that children in the 1958 birth cohort were divided between those educated under selective and comprehensive systems, and in a careful comparison they find that the mobility chances of the two sets of children, whether considered in terms of class or income, were essentially the same. Conservative claims that the abolition of grammar schools have been damaging to social mobility are thus not supported; but neither are the hopes of those who saw in comprehensive schools the agencies of a more open society.

That last study, of which I had not heard before, sounds interesting. But my point here is that Vince Cable, in trying to widen “social mobility” policy beyond early years, beyond schools policy and university access, to adult learning, is on the right track.

All he needs to do is to go one further, beyond education altogether, to trying to reduce inequality of earnings directly.

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