Social Mobility? Forget It…

The Government wants to unlock talent and fulfil potential with its plan to improve social mobility through education. It intends to do this by: targeting communities that are left behind, closing the ‘word-gap’ in early years, closing the attainment gap in schools between disadvantaged and more affluent children, providing high quality post 16 skills education and access to the best universities, working with businesses to support adult retraining and ‘upskilling’,  building partnerships and identifying and spreading ‘what works’ throughout the system.

Most of this seems to make sense except for one glaring problem – it is extraordinarily difficult, maybe impossible, to improve social mobility through education.

Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California points out:

How do we know we cannot change the rate of social mobility? One piece of evidence is what happened to social mobility rates as England moved from the pre-industrial world of squire and servant, to the modern noisy meritocracy of the rude boys of finance. What happened as the political franchise was extended in the early 19th century? What happened as mass public education was introduced later in the century? What happened as education, healthcare and pensions for the poor were financed by taxation of the incomes of the wealthier? The answer is that social mobility remained at its slow pre-industrial pace.

There was a point post second world war when social mobility was on the increase however this was not due to education but due to the changing jobs market:

In 1951, 55% of the male workforce was working class and 11% were in professional and managerial occupations. By 2011, 30% are working class and 40% in the higher classes. The huge level of upward mobility, then, largely reflects that there was ‘more room at the top’ – there were simply more jobs to be upwardly mobile into. 

Despite this, in the long term, there has been very little difference to overall social mobility figures. That there is some evidence of downward mobility now may have resulted in anxious parents worrying about their children’s prospects and governments seeking to respond with solutions focusing on social mobility through education. As Dr. Lindsey Roberts writes here, in a piece for the British Academy:

Education is often held up as the solution to the mobility problem. The idea is that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can do well at school and university and work their way into higher class positions by a process of “meritocracy”. Superficially this might sound like a good idea, but it is one that doesn’t hold up well in practice. Availability of graduate jobs (if such a concept still exists) has not kept pace with the increasing supply of university-educated young people entering the labour market, and in relative terms the value of getting a degree may be declining. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the: proportion of graduates working in low-skill jobs has increased, from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016. Just ‘being’ a graduate does not automatically mean you will have a well-paid job and if there are to be more graduates this could increase, supply and demand might mean graduates being less rare command lower wages, the jobs market might not be so enamoured by graduates if nearly everyone is one.

The jobs market is changing, more people are in work but wages are stagnant or falling. Productivity per person is relatively low and a number of people report feeling underproductive. More are ‘self employed’, numbers have increased by 50% since the turn of the century, though the nature of self employment is also changing in these ‘uberfication’ days.

The ‘type’ of graduate also effects social mobility, STEM degrees might command better jobs and wages though whether this is due to supply and demand is a moot point. If there were more people with these degrees would social mobility improve?

The Sutton Trust report that:

Despite a large (38%) and increasing proportion of the UK workforce holding a higher education qualification, university graduates still enjoy a large earnings advantage over non- graduates (estimated by previous studies as 28% for men and 53% for women)…

The results show that there are large variations in outcomes for graduates depending on their university and degree subject.

Graduates from Oxford and Cambridge enjoy starting salaries approximately £7,600 (42%) higher per year, on average, than graduates from post-1992 universities. They also earn starting salaries approximately £3,300 higher than graduates from other highly selective Sutton Trust 13 universities.

Differences by subject are even more substantial, with graduates from medicine and dentistry courses (the highest earning subject) earning starting salaries approximately £12,200 higher than those studying design and creative arts (the lowest earning subjects). Engineering and technology (the second highest earning subject) graduates earn on average £8,800 higher than design and creative arts graduates.

If every graduate was studying medicine would there be the jobs for them to go to?  If we want social mobility to increase then we need ‘more room at the top’ – more jobs [and courses] to be upwardly mobile into. If we want to prove we have a socially mobile society we would need to ensure that a substantial part of the increase in courses and jobs was taken up by the children of the poor. No point in having this extra capacity and filling it up with rich kids.

If nothing is done about advantaged children going to Oxford and more of the poor end up going to Oxford and there is no increase in places, parents who are ‘just about managing’, who don’t count as ‘poor’, those who don’t qualify for free school meals, the lower middle classes, might complain that their children can’t get to Oxford as easily as the children who went to private schools and the children of the poor. If social mobility is about leaving the middle where they are, this is not about creating a meritocratic system, it is one where statistics will merely be bandied about. Social mobility has to include the unpalatable idea of downward mobility especially for richer families, if we are to justify our mobility figures by getting more poor children than before to succeed rather than more rich ones. With private school pupils two and half times more likely to join one of the leading universities than state-educated ones and the upper echelons of the jobs market dominated by students from private school backgrounds something would have to give. Abolishing public schools might make a bit of a difference but the influence of affluence would then be felt in different ways.

Degrees make a difference, (though the fact that the number of graduates in low skilled jobs is increasing, might be of concern).Barnardos suggest that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, over a quarter of all children. 1.7 million of these children are living in severe poverty. What are the chances of social mobility through education? According to Barnardos: 34% of children entitled to free school meals achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above, including English and Maths, this compares to 61% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals. How to make a big dent on Oxford admissions from this group?

About 1% of school leavers at 18 go to Oxbridge, and around 8% go to Russell Group Universities. For argument’s sake, if we think of the 3.7 million ‘poor’ children spread out evenly over 18 years that would make 205,556 poor children per ‘cohort’. In 2016 there were 11,728 Undergraduates, studying at Oxford University.  If we were to double poor children attending Oxford there would be hardly a dent on mobility. The same with Russell Group entry. What is Oxford doing to target the poor? According to this publication, Increasing Access to Oxbridge; An exploration of obstacles for under-represented groups and efforts to overcome them:

The University is… targeting candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, measured by their ACORN (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode, focusing on ACORN postcodes 4 (‘moderate means’) and 5 (‘hard pressed’), the least advantaged areas of the UK. The target is to increase the proportion of candidates from these areas to 9% by 2016-17. The total number of UK applicants matched with ACORN data in 2014 entry was 2,579; 241 students were accepted from ACORN postcodes putting the acceptance rate at 9.3%. The final low participation target category is POLAR 2 (Participation of Local Areas) which looks at the participation of young people in higher education for different geographical areas of the UK, and shows how the chances of young people entering higher education varies depending on where they live. Oxford is focusing on quintiles 1 and 2, which have the lowest participation rates in higher education. In 2014, the total number of accepted UK applicants who matched with POLAR 2 postcode data was 2,560, with 264 students accepted from POLAR 2 quintile 1 and 2 postcodes, putting the percentage of accepted students at 10.3%; the target is to increase this to 13% by 2016-17.

Of course a rich family is free to live in a ‘disadvantaged’ postcode neighbourhood but, casting that aside, these numbers will not make a huge impact on overall social mobility. To make some sort of impact we would have to make much more effort to get substantially more students into ‘top’ universities. By making Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities treble in size and have to take on the increase in numbers entirely from those from a poorer background might make a bit of a difference. Oxford would could have, say, 35,000 graduates –  with 24,000 from poorer backgrounds. Yet still the vast majority of children from poor backgrounds wouldn’t get into Oxford. Oxford would have changed radically. It would need more buildings, more staff, change its admissions criteria, as would all the other universities, if this was to make any impact in the name of ‘mobility’.

Dr. Lindsey Roberts states:

While it is true that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have good chances of getting the higher class jobs if they get good qualifications, such a group remains small in number and is more than offset by advantaged individuals without good qualifications but who are somehow enabled by their backgrounds to do well…

The Sutton Trust reports:

…students from the most highly advantaged backgrounds [are] those who attended private secondary schools. Graduating from the same university, from the same subject, with the same degree classification, students from private school backgrounds tended to have somewhat higher earnings and a greater probability of going on to a professional level job than did their state school counterparts. In terms of starting salary, this difference was around £1,350 per year on average.

Therefore, regardless of qualifications, in order to create more room at the top we would have to legislate in order to counteract the inbuilt advantage children with highly affluent backgrounds seem to get. Maybe we could make sure that the increasing number of low skill jobs that are now being done by graduates are entirely taken up by those from advantaged backgrounds. Inheritance tax could be increased too, maybe to 100%? And, perhaps, rich people should only be allowed no more than three books in their homes in order to ‘de-literate’ their offspring.

Can the Government really make the argument that education is a route to social mobility? The current figures do not justify that belief and in order to make a radical dent in the figures of social mobility the government would have to make far more radical proposals than they are suggesting and these changes would have to go far beyond the narrow remit of education.

Education cannot create social mobility on its own. More room at the top and more pay at the bottom might help but even then will we accept a ‘fair’ meritocratic society where those at the top can be deemed to be successful and those at the bottom can be deemed to have failed? Much better to be at the bottom of society due to unfairness than to be there because you ‘deserve it’. In the meantime what should schools do? I’d suggest they should forget social mobility and, instead, concentrate on ‘cultural mobility’ a term I will explore further in a future blogpost.


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