Social Mobility and Education in Britain

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Social mobility is a hotly contested topic. The UK Social Mobility Commission has just been re-launched, following the shock resignation of the last commission in December 2017 in protest at lack of progress. The new Commission again has education at the heart of their remit. But in a new book published today, Erzsébet Bukodi and John H Goldthorpe (University of Oxford) challenge what we think we know about education and social mobility – and what must change if we want future generations to have a better chance in life. Their findings are a stark contrast to many generally accepted views about social mobility. Based on several years’ extensive research, they call for a major rethink in political and policy circles.

Bukodi and Goldthorpe tell us that social mobility in Britain is not in decline. Children today are just as likely to end up in different social class positions to those of their parents as they were in the 1950s. People are moving – but not in the direction they might want. Dr Goldthorpe comments: “The real mobility problem is that upward mobility is falling while downward mobility is rising. Young people now face less favourable mobility prospects than their parents or grandparents.”

Using new comparative data, they place Britain in its European context and conclude that it is not a distinctively low mobility society. The proportion of men and women who change class positions between generations is remarkably similar across Europe. And so far as the inherent ‘stickiness’ between the class positions of parents and children is concerned, Britain is among a group of countries that have comparatively fluid class structures. Nonetheless, inequalities in mobility chances are remarkably persistent and can be extreme. This is especially the case with ‘long-range’ mobility between routine wage-earning positions and higher-level salaried positions.

Bukodi and Goldthorpe take a close look at the role education plays in social mobility and produce several new insights. Educational policy is not key to increasing mobility as politicians of all parties would wish to suppose. Education is not ‘the great equaliser’ that can break the link between inequality of condition and inequality of opportunity.  Significant gaps in educational attainment among children of different class origins persist, and Dr Bukodi comments: “In the case of academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds a marked wastage of talent occurs.” Further, it turns out that ‘lifelong learning’ does not so much give second chances to such children but rather second chances to children from more advantaged backgrounds  who did not live up to expectations in full time education  - and in this way helps to protect them from downward mobility.

In general, the stability of the mobility regime results from the motivation and the ability of parents in more advantaged class positions to draw on their superior resources, economic but also social and cultural, in order to ‘do their best’ for their children – to preserve their competitive edge in education and in turn in their employment prospects. In societies with market economies, a nuclear family system and a liberal democratic polity there may be at some point a limit to how far mobility chances can be equalised.

So what can be done? Bukodi and Goldthorpe conclude that the most effective way of generally improving mobility chances would be through economic and social policies that could renew the expansion of managerial and professional employment. This was the source of the steady increase in upward mobility from the 1950s through to the 1980s. A possible way of reducing inequalities in mobility chances would be through employers developing internal promotion policies that fully exploit the capabilities of their workforces - including educationally wasted talent - and that remove barriers imposed by requirements for formal qualifications of an irrelevant kind.

Erzsébet Bukodi and John H Goldthorpe, Social Mobility and Education in Britain: Research, Politics and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
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Read Bess Bukodi's piece in The Conversation discussing this research.