Civitas report seeks to debunk some myths about social mobility

Many current policies don’t aid social mobility


Professor Peter Saunders of the University of Sussex has written a pamphlet Social Mobility Myths, for the centre right think tank Civitas.

Professor Saunders  claims that much of what is claimed about social mobility is either false or more complicated than we think.

Saunders comments that “Most politicians assume that social mobility in Britain is very limited, when it is not. They think that class origins count much more than personal effort and talent in shaping people’s destinies, but this simply isn’t true.”

One such myth he claims is that governments can increase mobility by top-down engineering of the education system and forcing more income redistribution.

He says that the reality is much better than most commentators think. For starters  most bright, working class children succeed in society. If we look at all children in the top quarter of the ability range, 65% of them end up in professional/managerial jobs and only 5% end up in manual working class jobs. Bright working class children nearly always rise up the class system (although dull middle class children do not always fall down it).

Ability, he found, trumps class. In models predicting occupational status in adulthood, the cognitive ability of the child at age 11 accounts for half of all the variance explained. Ability is well over twice as important as class origins, three times more powerful than the degree of interest parents show in their child’s schooling, and five times more powerful than parents’ level of education or the aspirations which parents have for their children.

Crucially,  Talent and hard work are the two key factors in class placement.

Saunders criticises policies recommended in recent government reviews of social mobility, including the 2008 Cabinet Office report, Getting On, Getting Ahead, Alan Milburn’s 2009 report on ‘fair access to the professions’, and Harriet Harman’s National Equality Panel report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, published in January this year. He  specifically attacks:

the preoccupation with expanding entry into higher education, even at the expense of academic standards;

the ‘grade inflation’ unleashed by pushing ever-increasing numbers of pupils through GCSEs and A-levels;

the attempt by government to create more middle class jobs (mainly by expanding the size of the public sector);

moves towards ‘positive discrimination’ in university selection designed to make it harder for bright, middle class applicants to get accepted;

the fallacious belief that flattening the income distribution through higher taxes and more generous welfare benefits will promote mobility.

Of all current initiatives, the only one that is probably worthwhile is the attempt to improve the quality of parenting among low income, welfare parents.

According to Saunders: “Politicians have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that Britain is a closed society. Labour radicals want to deny social fluidity exists because this allows them to attack the supposed unfairness of the British class system. Conservatives want to deny it, because they can then attack the [previous] government’s record in promoting opportunity. Both sides have closed their eyes and ears to the evidence.”

Social Mobility Myths by Peter Saunders can be downloaded at this link.



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