Going down

The coalition will not improve social mobility
October 19, 2011

“The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities,” said Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, in April. “That is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of the coalition government’s policy.”

It is an appealing call to arms. The more “mobile” our society, the less our birth matters; the more our own efforts and abilities shape where we end up. Unfortunately, the government is unlikely to achieve its goal.

Social mobility is shamefully low in Britain, compared to Europe. This shows itself early—in different levels of school readiness, primary school achievement and higher education. It shows itself, too, in the close relationship between our earnings and those of our parents. As Jo Blanden at the University of Surrey has demonstrated, the impact of parental income is over 1.5 times greater in Britain than in Germany, Sweden, Australia and Canada. Whether measured by exam results or earnings, the children of the richest 10 per cent do best, followed by children of the next 10 per cent and so on down to the poorest. The very pervasiveness of the problem shows just how difficult change will be.

To be clear, the government has vowed to increase relative social mobility. That implies that if I move up the social scale, someone else has moved down. By contrast, much of the social mobility of recent decades has been of the “absolute” variety—with the rise in white collar and professional jobs creating more room at the top. Under current economic conditions, this is not set to continue.

The trouble, too, is that more affluent parents tend to work hard to ensure their own children are not downwardly mobile—if that involves paying for extra tuition, so be it. So while there have been improvements in results for poorer children in recent years—many more reach the expected level at age 11, and stay on in school after 16—at the top end, the gaps have widened even further, in terms of achievement above the expected level at age 11, and in university entrance. Undoubtedly, the improvements among poorer children are a success. But the leaders in the race are just as far ahead as ever. Moreover, the starting blocks are now further apart: inequalities in income and wealth have grown enormously in recent years.

The government’s strategy recognises some of these difficulties. It rightly focuses not just on the crucial early years, but across the whole lifecycle. However, beyond a modest increase in funding for schools with the poorest pupils, action to back up the strategy has been limited. Similarly, while the government has committed to end child poverty by 2020, recent Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) research suggests that any reduction—let alone elimination—is highly unlikely. It would require either an implausible rise in benefit spending or some astonishing turnaround in the structure of the labour market. The same is true of social mobility, which would also demand a dramatic turnaround in school performance of poorer children—something governments of every stripe have struggled to achieve even when money has been plentiful.

The long-term nature of the challenge might have given Cameron and Clegg a bit of a let off, as we can never really judge progress over a single parliament. But to their credit they have committed to publishing annually a series of interim indicators, covering measures of school readiness, attainment and movement into higher education. Some of the measures are genuinely relative: how school readiness varies between groups, for example. Unfortunately, closing the gap in achievement at age 11 or 16 does not offer the whole picture: often, other gaps simply open up at other crucial points, such as entry into university.

So while the government’s aims are laudable, there is no sign its policymakers have understood the challenge they have set themselves, or just how long-term, sustained and radical the changes they make will need to be. As they will discover with child poverty, targets, rhetoric and paper strategies are not enough.