Education’s role in fuelling social mobility is limited, says academic. Instead, implement social and economic policies aimed at making society more equal.

Janet Downs's picture

It’s received wisdom that social mobility has fallen in the UK. And education is viewed as crucial in increasing mobility.

But John Goldthorpe* of Oxford University disputes this.

This view stemmed from a 2001 Discussion Paper which looked at social mobility in terms of earnings. This suggested social mobility had fallen between the late 50s and 1970. The results were disseminated in several reports “rather less qualified than the original”. These were seized upon by Labour politicians who argued the decline coincided with the 1979 Tory victory and by Conservatives who said it followed the decline of grammar schools. At the same time the media ignored new research and held to the “line” that social mobility had stalled.

But the original paper actually provided “a very limited basis for claims about mobility trends.” The authors recognized its limitations – missing data and the concentration on a subsection of the population born only twelve years apart – and warned against their findings being over-interpreted.

Too late – the over-interpretation has been repeated so often it is now the “consensus view”: social mobility had declined at the end of the 20th century in relation to the “Golden Age of mobility” in the decades after WW2.

But there’s an alternative view based on class mobility not income. In the recent past mobility rates have leveled out for men (but not women) and have not “ground to a halt”. And the reason for this leveling out is not education policy but a halt in the expansion of professional and managerial jobs which had burgeoned in the “Golden Age”.

Nevertheless, the view prevailed that education would increase social mobility and there’d be no limit on employment possibilities for the qualified. But the opposite has occurred – “over-qualification” is an increasing feature of advanced societies including the UK.

Goldthorpe argues that it is not through education that social mobility will increase but by economic policies: investing in advanced technology, the “knowledge economy” and in “public and social services”.

Viewing education as the main way in which disadvantaged pupils can become socially mobile is flawed, Goldthorpe argues. As education standards improve, the more advantaged parents will use their wealth to maintain their “children’s competitive edge”. At the same time, lack of educational success is less of a handicap for advantaged children because they can access support networks unavailable to disadvantaged children who don’t succeed.

Attempts to increase “equality of opportunity” are unlikely to be effective unless “class-linked inequalities of condition” are significantly reduced, Goldthorpe argues. Social mobility is more marked in Scandinavian countries. This was not achieved solely through education but by reducing income differences through taxation and welfare policies combined with “strong trade unionism and employment protection”.

CONCLUSION: The effect of education on social mobility appears limited. Education, therefore, should be pursued for its own sake – “to allow all young people to realize their full academic and wider human potentialities”.

If governments are serious about creating a more mobile society then politicians need to move from “the relative comfort zone of educational policy and accept that measures will be required, of a kind sure to be strongly contested, that seek to reduce inequalities of condition, of which those associated with social class would appear the most fundamental”.


Thanks to Marco Bligh for drawing my attention to this paper.

*John H Goldthorpe is a Distinguished Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Social Policy and Nuffield College, University of Oxford


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