Alex Steer

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How not to improve social mobility

764 words | ~4 min

(Note: Links updated, April 2014)

The government has a new white paper on social mobility. It's largely fairly sensible and well researched, but the recommendation that's caused the biggest splash is for a commission, to be led by Alan Milburn, to tackle perceived barriers preventing children from poor families getting a fair crack of the whip at entering top professions: law, medicine, that sort of thing. Predictably, the Guardian loves it, and the Telegraph hates it.

I think it's hugely misconceived and will be damaging to children from poor families. Here's why.

On intergenerational mobility, for a long time the standard claim has been that it is declining in Britain. This comes from comparison of the data on the links between parents' and children's income/educational attainment from two longitudinal studies, the National Child Development Survey (started 1958) and the British Cohort Study (started 1970). The later study showed lower intergenerational mobility (aka social mobility) than the earlier (link).

Problem is, it's not necessarily true - the longitudinal studies are necessarily always based on pretty old data. Some recent boffinry has suggested that the decline is not ongoing. However, it hasn't reversed.

In short, the big determiner of your earning power is your level of education, and that's pretty consistent between studies. What's changed is the relationship between your parents' earning power and your likely educational attainment, which has become stronger - if your parents are rich, you're more likely to do well at school, more likely to enter high education and more likely to get a degree, and that means you're more likely to be rich than a comparably intelligent child from a poorer family. The expansion of higher education over the last thirty years has been of disproportionate benefit to affluent middle-class families, with relatively little increase in uptake by young people from poor families.

The evidence suggests that the best way to increase social mobility (or, to put it another way, to decrease the strength of the intergenerational income/education correlation) would be to target investment to improve the likelihood of young people from poor families entering and staying in higher education. This is a huge job, as it involves tackling some pretty entrenched anti-achievement cultures (one of the defining features of poverty traps) and trying to give kids from poor families whose parents don't care about education the same will to succeed as kids from rich families with parents who really care. This, bluntly, is why spending more public money on some children's educations than on others is fair, and not unfair as it seems. It's not a declaration of war on middle-class families; it's trying to give poor kids the same support that middle-class kids get at home anyway. This is not exactly the rampage of socialism it's made out to be. Yes, it's a shame that there are some families who don't give a damn about their kids' futures so the government has to bail them out, but the roots of the problem usually go back through generations of neglect, and the alternative is to admit that you're happy to see some kids fail because of who their parents are. And if you admit that, you might as well just build a wall round the sink estates and turn on the hose.

Which is where the new white paper comes in. The commission idea is half-naked electioneering, basically, and clearly an underlying bugbear of the Prime Minister's: people are calling it, not unfairly, the 'Laura Spence agenda'. The problem is, haranguing the professions because a lot of their working practices look particularly alien to kids from council estates will only annoy the professions (as it annoys Oxbridge, who put phenomenal effort into targeting kids from non-traditional backgrounds) and not get you very far. Top professions will continue to employ people with top qualifications, and these are disproportionately white, from middle-class parentage, and often privately-educated. All it does is remind people that the Shadow Cabinet is stuffed with Etonians, barristers and other assorted Tory Boys. And maybe that's all it's meant to do.

# Alex Steer (22/01/2009)