Decades of educational expansion ‘had little effect on social mobility’

16 March 2016

The expansion of educational opportunities has not translated into better social mobility chances for those from less well-off families, according to findings from the 1946, 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies and Understanding Society.

Dr John Goldthorpe of Oxford University presented the findings in the inaugural British Academy sociology lecture, held on March 15 in London.

The lecture was based on research led by Prof Erzsébet Bukodi of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at Oxford University. Prof Bukodi and colleagues analysed the social origins, education, and employment of around 30,000 British men and women born in 1946, 1958, 1970 and 1980-84. They found that more advantaged families now use their economic, cultural, and social edge to ensure their children stay at the top of the social class ladder.

The findings show that what matters is not how much education someone has, but how they compare with others competing for the same jobs. For example, in 1972, half of those men found in managerial positions in the UK had no formal academic qualifications at all.

Dr Goldthorpe said that ‘parents and children are more concerned with avoiding downward mobility than they are with achieving upward mobility. And the resources of those families with most to lose through downward mobility will, in the nature of the case, tend to be greater than the resources of families with the most to gain through upward mobility’.

Dr Goldthorpe showed that when educational qualifications are taken at face value, inequalities in educational attainment among children from different class backgrounds have narrowed – although this improvement is still mainly at lower educational levels. However, when education is considered in relative terms, its effects on individuals’ chances of social mobility or immobility have changed little – these chances remain highly unequal.

The only exception was among women who have worked part-time. Over time, the association between class origins and employment has weakened for this group. It seems this is mainly because a growing number of more advantaged women choose to give priority to family life over their own careers.

Dr Goldthorpe said: ‘What can be achieved through educational policy alone is limited – far more so than politicians find it convenient to suppose. To look to the educational system itself to provide a solution to the problem of inequality of opportunity is to impose an undue burden on it. Rather, a whole range of economic and social policies is needed.’

Dr Goldthorpe also outlined research showing that people born in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s have been less often upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents, while an increasing number of men and women have started to drop down the social ladder. He attributes the upward mobility from the 1950s to the 1970s to a major expansion of professional and managerial positions in that period, and dubs it the ‘Golden Age’ of social mobility. Because more individuals are now starting out in life from more advantaged class positions, more are at risk of moving down the social ladder.

“What, in this case, is called for are policies that can lead to a further upgrading of the class structure,” Dr Goldthorpe explained. “That is, policies not just for economic growth but for economic and social development that can help create more ‘top-end’ jobs. For example, policies aimed at improving our presently very poor levels of investment in research and development…policies aimed at creating a modernised and environmentally friendly infrastructure; and policies requiring the progressive raising of the quality of all social and other public services.

“Perhaps policymakers committed to the idea of ‘greater opportunity for all’ would do well to focus their efforts on reducing social inequalities of condition and on creating a rising demand in the national economy for able and highly-qualified managerial and professional personnel – and then leave social mobility to look after itself.”

About the event

The lecture, entitled ‘Social class mobility in modern Britain: Changing structure, constant process’ was held on Tuesday, March 15 at the British Academy in London. Find out more about event on the British Academy website.

Press coverage of this story

Guardian: Education reform ‘has failed to improve social mobility’

Guardian comment: Decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility by Dr John Goldthorpe

Observer Editorial: The Observer view on a fairer world of work

Mail Online: Prospects for young people are worse than their parents even after 50 years of sweeping educational reforms, says expert

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