Social mobility is assumed to be good – but what is it and can it rise forever?

Janet Downs's picture

Social mobility, the Sutton Trust says, is 'how someone’s adult outcomes relate to their circumstances as a child.'  If this means rising from poverty, then it’s good.  But if social mobility just means ‘getting further than their parents’ (another Sutton Trust definition) then it can’t be sustained indefinitely.

What does getting further than parents actually mean?  If it means earning more than parents then this depends on the labour market and pay keeping pace with inflation.  It depends on whether robots will make certain jobs redundant.  It depends on whether other countries do comparable work more cheaply*.  

The Social Mobility Commission said:

‘…the twentieth century expectation that each generation would do better than the last is no longer being met.

Its report contained suggestions for schools which would be desirable even if not linked to social mobility.  But it places responsibility for closing the ‘attainment gap’ between disadvantaged and advantaged children squarely on schools.  There would be no need to focus on attainment gaps if governments brought in policies aimed at raising children out of poverty.  Placing the responsibility on schools lets governments off the hook.

For some people, however, social mobility is less to do with economics and more to do with class.  It’s assumed climbing out of the working class is undeniably positive.  But what is working class?  The Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of ‘ordinary working class families’ but this is a vague soundbite. 

The Office for National Statistics uses employment for ‘socio-economic’ classification.  These range from Level 1 (Higher managerial) to Level 8 (Never worked and long-term unemployed).  And there are subsections… 

But linking these socio-economic classifications to the British class system doesn’t work.   It can’t be assumed that ‘own account workers (non-professional)’ (Level 4 subsection L9.1) are in a higher social class to those in ‘semi-routine childcare occupations’ (Level 6 subsection L12.7)?    And it should be remembered that 60% of Britons regarded themselves as working class in 2016.

In any case, it’s dubious to claim one class is ‘higher’ than others.  Britain, we are told, has its roots in Christianity but its class system clearly does not recognise that the ‘last shall be first, and the first last’ (Matthew 20.16).  No amount of education (or money) will propel someone into Britain’s so-called upper class.  You have to be born into it (although  it’s possible to marry your way in).  And education alone won’t eradicate the ‘vanity of small differences’ dividing one class from another – differences which can prevent in oh-so-subtle ways those at the wrong end of Britain’s class system from accessing jobs for which they are educationally suitable.  It isn’t just class that disadvantages certain people, of course.  There’s gender, race, sexual orientation, age, disability.   All these can affect employment prospects.

Successive governments have assumed ever-upward social mobility is desirable and possible.  In doing so they shut down discussion about how to deal with the time - already here - when social mobility stalls and falls backward.   Blaming education for falling social mobility is blinkered.  Better to recognise education’s roll in tackling social mobility is limited and focus on policies designed to make society more equal instead.


*See Brown P, Lauder H and Ashton D, (2011) The Global Auction: The broken promises of education, jobs, and incomes.





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