Decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility

  • 29 March 2016
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Decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility

John Goldthorpe

It is widely believed in political circles, and among the commentariat, that in Britain today social mobility is in decline. This is not, in fact, the case, as a new research programme led by Professor Erzsébet Bukodi of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at Oxford University shows. But the preoccupation with the supposed decline has diverted attention from other, in many ways more fundamental, problems of social mobility. Chiefly, there are key questions about the role of education. Successive governments, committed to increasing mobility, have regarded educational policy as the essential means to this end.

The period from the end of the Second World War to the present has been one of more or less continuous educational expansion and reform – from the Butler Act of 1944, introducing free secondary education for all, through the shift from selective to comprehensive secondary education, to the rapid expansion of tertiary education in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.

Yet despite all this expansion and reform, inequalities in relative mobility chances have remained little altered.

If we think of mobility simply in terms of the proportion of individuals who are found in a different social class position to that of their parents, this proportion remained remarkably stable across birth cohorts of men and women from the end of the Second World War down to the 1980s. On the basis of the seven classes of the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification, this “total” mobility rate works out at around 80%.

But, where change is apparent is in the upward and downward components of the total rate. In the middle decades of the last century, in what has been called the golden age of social mobility, upward mobility was clearly more frequent than downward, primarily as a result of the expansion of managerial and professional employment. There was “more room at the top”. But the positive effects of this class structural change are now weakening and the negative effects strengthening.

The dark side of the golden age is that more individuals are now experiencing social descent and fewer social ascent simply because the numbers “at risk” of the former have increased. A situation is emerging that is quite new in modern British history. Young people entering the labour market today face far less favourable mobility prospects than did their parents – or their grandparents.

This is, however, entirely the result of changes in the class structure. The degree of social fluidity within this structure – the inherent “stickiness” between the class positions of parents and their children – has remained unchanged. And this, as I noted, raises the issue of the role of education. 

Education is a major factor in determining who is mobile or immobile – in terms of determining which individuals. But it does not follow from this that education will be of similar importance in determining the total amount of mobility within society at large. For education to have an impact in this regard two things are necessary. First, the link between individuals’ social origins and their educational attainment must weaken; second, the link between their educational qualifications and the level of social positions they end up in must strengthen. There must be a movement towards an education-based meritocracy. But in fact there is little evidence of any such movement.

If education is viewed not simply as a consumption good but as investment good in relation to the labour market, it would appear appropriate to measure educational attainment in relative terms. What is important is not how much education individuals have but how much relative to others and especially relative to those others who will be most direct competitors in the labour market.

Thus, for example, having A-levels should count for more for someone born in the 1940s than for someone born in the 1980s when A-levels were far more widely held, and mainly as a stepping stone to a university degree. If we treat education in this relative way, what we find is again a rather remarkable over-time constancy. Across successive birth cohorts, the association between individuals’ class origins and their educational attainment does not change, and neither does the association between their educational attainment and their eventual class destinations, or not in any consistent way.

Why should this be? What is important to recognise – but what politicians prefer to ignore – is that if social mobility is to be increased by reducing the inherent stickiness between the class positions of parents and children, this must mean increasing downward mobility to just the same extent as upward mobility. But, as against this mathematical symmetry, there is a psychological asymmetry. There are grounds for believing, consistent with the psychological theory of loss aversion, that parents and their children are yet more concerned to avoid downward mobility than they are to achieve upward mobility. Thus parents in more advantaged class positions will respond to any expansion or reform of the educational system by using superior resources – economic, cultural and social – to help their children retain a competitive edge in the system and in turn in the labour market. It is this coming together of the strong motivation to avoid déclassement and the usually adequate means for doing so that is the source of the powerful resistance to change.

What, then, are the implications for policy? If the aim is to increase mobility by creating a greater equality in relative mobility chances, what can be achieved through educational policy alone is limited – far more so than politicians find it convenient to suppose. The basic source of inequality of educational opportunity lies in the inequality of condition – the inequality in resources of various kinds – that exists among families from different class backgrounds. And it is this inequality of condition that will have to be addressed.

If, however, the aim is not so much to increase mobility as to change its pattern, and to move back to a situation like that of the golden age when upward mobility predominated, then what are needed are policies for economic and social development that can generate more “top-end” jobs. Policies aimed at raising our presently poor level of investment in research and development, at creating a modernised and environmentally friendly infrastructure, and at the progressive upgrading of the quality of all social and other public services.

Taken from the guardian

Dr John Goldthorpe gives the inaugural British Academy sociology lecture on Tuesday, entitled Decades of educational expansion and reform have had little effect on social mobility