The Social Mobility Trap and why politicians fall into it

by Andy Westwood on October 26, 2012

Alan Milburn’s recent report into social mobility and higher education says little that is really controversial or particularly surprising. He has outlined the data that shows up the unequal admissions across universities and surveyed the policies that have aimed to address it – from the National Scholarship Programme to Aimhigher. But his central question too easily repeats the widespread assertion that social mobility in the UK has at best stalled or at worst is in decline. And that this has largely happened since the 1990s.

But he is at least partly wrong. A collapse in social mobility might have been part of the political lexicon for several years but this isn’t based on a real understanding or grasp of the evidence. The political narrative is that social mobility has stalled or gone backwards since the 1990s and Conservative and Liberal Democrats accuse Labour of presiding over this decline.

Most of the detailed evidence about declining levels of social mobility come from the cohort studies based on people born in 1958 and 1970. The challenge of measuring life chances and social outcomes is that you need longitudinal data following a particular cohort throughout their lives. For those born in 1970 we can see a relative decline in income and life chances compared to those born at the earlier date – hence the popular political and media interpretation. As the cohort have left school and university (if they attended) these findings relate to their adult lives from the 1990s onwards. But crucially this cohort undertook most of their education long before Labour came to power – and if they went to university straight after school then they would have done so even before the expansion of higher education and the creation of new post 1992 universities under John Major.

So whatever it says about government policies on social mobility it will reflect on the governments of Wilson, Callaghan and Heath more than on Major, Blair or Brown. Margaret Thatcher, for once, lies somewhere in the middle. So we simply don’t know yet what the impact of policies such as HE expansion, Sure Start, school reforms, Aimhigher and Blair’s 50% target will eventually have on the life chances of those that experienced them. In turn it will be equally difficult for current ministers – whether Nick Clegg, David Willetts or Michael Gove – to know much about the impact of their policies aimed at increasing social mobility for some considerable time.

I might not often agree with Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times but he’s right to point to a flawed understanding of social mobility and to the excellent research of John Goldthorpe. He is also right to ask about how assumptions of a decline might lead to poor policy making in the present. But Milburn and others are right to stress that there is inequality in society – that when looking at the very top and the very bottom, inequality has grown over recent decades (though things are less clear in the next deciles) and that there is inequity in access to and participation in HE with its own consequences. Milburn’s data is well rehearsed; he isn’t the first to use it - see the Laura Spence row and the run up to the 2004 white paper and the creation of OFFA.

Four private schools and one sixth form college do send more kids to Oxbridge than some 2000 other schools. The most advantaged 20% are seven times more likely to go to higher education than the bottom 40%, and so on. These remain shocking statistics and above all show a waste in human capital across society. But these arguments, like much policymaking, focuses too readily on a certain type of 18 year old school leaver and the types of institutions that they might attend.

Martin Rees’s recent argument about the need for a diversity of institutions and progression is important - a reminder that HE policy shouldn’t simply be a debate about one kind of institution or one kind student. It shouldn’t, and isn’t, just about entry at 18, or about good and bad schools or indeed contextual data. They are all an important part of the debate of course, but they can also be an unhelpful and rather limiting aspect of public policy.

But there is good news. David Willetts has just commissioned a new cohort study – some forty years since the last one. In a blog for the Guardian entitled ‘Research Evidence is the antidote to Sloppy Thinking of Sofa Government’, he describes why it will underpin more considered assessments of public policy. He’s right and it can’t have been easy to justify over £20million of funding for such research in times of austerity. But sadly he won’t be able to go back to 1980, 1990 or to 2000 to fill the gaps in the evidence base.

In writing this blog I might be accused of making a technical academic argument about measurement and definitions. That is at least partly true – and it might not change all of the interventions recommended by Milburn and others as a way of tackling the clear inequalities that exist. But a better understanding of social mobility is important for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we should evaluate the impact of policies like Sure Start, school reforms and programmes like Aimhigher properly over time and not simply dismiss them as part of a failed attempt to improve social mobility. This is why Willetts’s commissioning of a new cohort study is vitally important. That’s just good social science.

But the second issue is even more important than that. If politicians are able to dismiss a whole range of HE policies since the early 1990s as based on a flawed assessment of declining social mobility then they will be able to dismiss the most important policy of all – the sustained expansion of higher education and the additional investment in human capital that it has brought. Allowing politicians or the public to believe that shrinking or restricting the sector will have little effect, will have a cost for us all.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny Shaw October 26, 2012 at 8:12 am

Thanks Andy for adding such incisive thinking to the debate. It’s a shame you didn’t get a chance to say this at the panel session! But so glad you could blog it instead.

behrfacts October 26, 2012 at 9:28 am

Researchers are using existing cohort studies to look at social mobility issues in schools i.e. the Millennium Cohort Study children are now largely 12 years old so one year into secondary level with plenty of information about earlier ages available. Ironically these will be some of the last children, according to current DfE plans, to sit GCSEs in maintained schools assuming the English Baccalaureate Certificate comes in from 2015 – will that already make them disadvantaged in some form? I suspect not as I agree with Alan Milburn and David Laws that a low level of aspiration can effect school outcomes in whatever qualification you are made to sit, though some are admittedly worse than others. Of course we all know that it is good teachers who really make the difference many years before students start attending universities. This assumes they have jumped the hurdles before then to get on to the best courses in the universities most likely to give them access to the careers they are motivated by and could do well in. Lots of ‘ifs’ here!

Andy Westwood October 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Thanks Jenny for your comments. Behrfacts you too – you’re right of course to point to Millennium cohort study for evidence of some school reform but 30 year gap leaves a big hole in any longitudinal data especially if tracking what happens to people after formal education ie earnings, careers etc. Millenium cohort kids won’t get to university for another 6 or 7 years yet and even then we won’t know impact of studies on lives beyond that (which is most important bit when evaluating generational mobility). You’re also right to say that they won’t reveal much about Gove’s school reforms – we’ll have to wait for Willetts’s new cohort study for that.

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