Many people bemoan Britain’s lack of social mobility – meaning the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. But are we prepared to admit that we are all part of the problem when it suits us? By Etan Smallman
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“It’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going.” As the grandson of a baronet and a direct descendant of King William IV, David Cameron was keen to promote the idea of a classless society with this statement to the Conservative Party conference in 2012.
Before she walked into Downing Street for the first time to become Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, Theresa May told things differently. She listed a catalogue of “burning injustices”, chief among them that if you are poor, your life chances – and even your life expectancy – are blighted.
The public agrees with May more than Cameron. Less than a third of the population believe that everyone in this country has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them, according to one of the statistics in a new book. But Social Mobility and its Enemies could be seen as an indictment on both Tory leaders, along with their predecessors.
It looks at how movement up – and down – the economic and social ladder of life has frozen. It tries to unpick why, apart from the US, Britain has the stickiest socioeconomic rungs in the Western world. But it also asks us to look at ourselves. A key paragraph in the final chapter levels the charge. “We must also concede that we too are sometimes part of the problem,” it reads. “Have we ever stepped over the line – stretching the truth to ensure that our son or daughter gets that coveted school place, displacing an equally deserving child from a family ill-equipped to compete in this education zero-sum game? Difficult as it is to stomach, we too are enemies of social mobility if we believe our own offspring should somehow be exempt from being downwardly mobile.”
The foes are not just the out-of-touch politicians, the exploitative employers and the rampant economic inequality. They are also you and me.
One of the authors is Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, the foundation focused on improving social mobility through education. But even he admits he has friends who have moved house to get into a leading state school.
This is one of the key behaviours of what the book describes as “opportunity hoarders”, the sharp-elbowed middle-class parents who have commandeered the education system in their offspring’s favour, turning what was once seen as a great social leveller into, in Major’s words, “a vehicle through which the advantaged cement their position in society”. The book is packed with charts and analysis of research, and tries to combine Major’s skills as a former journalist with the academic rigour of his co-author, Professor Stephen Machin, director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE.
They point out that rising inequality and plummeting social mobility have gone hand-in-hand. A poorly paid “employee underclass”, who are locked out of the top schools and universities, the housing market and secure employment, are finding it harder than 40 years ago to better themselves or offer their children anything but the same.
And declining real wages since the 2008 downturn have heralded “a falling tide in which the smallest, most vulnerable boats are sinking fastest”.
They also contend that this stranglehold on the professions by a small elite is a key driver of our national productivity woes. In essence, it is making us all poorer. According to one study, if our social mobility levels were at those of Canada’s, our GDP would rise by 4.4 per cent per head.
Major says he has always been drawn to the subject because of his own personal story of social rise: a former street cleaner who was thrown out of home at 15, but gained three degrees. He points out that Machin is from a similarly working-class background, but the professor is not keen to dwell on that.
The all-too-often unexamined side of the equation is that for every person who climbs up a rung of the relative social mobility ladder, someone higher must take a step down, something the nation’s elites would never countenance. “We did try and look for examples of downward mobility and it’s hard to find,” says Major.
They also warn that those seeking upward mobility can often do so at the expense of their own happiness, leaving them “uprooted and anxious”, detached from the place they were born. Likewise, not every privately educated graduate will be fulfilled in a high-flying job.
So what are the answers? Cameron rejected the idea of schools using a lottery for admissions, saying that no child’s education should be determined by “the roll of a dice”.
But the problem is that another lottery, of birth, already dictates so much, which is why Major goes even further, advocating a random allocation process for universities.
“We were trying to think: what is the fairest way of allocating a finite number of places? What we’re saying is that if you live in the catchment area of that school, or if you’ve got the 3A*s to get into a leading university, then maybe a fairer system would be if, over a certain threshold, you are randomly allocated.”
He wants a ban on unpaid internships, but to tackle nepotism or prejudice against working-class applicants, Major says: “Maybe you have some kind of lottery there. It’s interesting, I keep coming back to randomisation because it’s the only way actually to cut through that middle-class advantage.”
An alternative proposal is to guarantee a university place “to, say, the top 10 per cent of academic-performing pupils in each state school” in order to recognise “the achievement of children in the context in which they grow up”. They posit the idea of democratising private schools by having means-tested fees, subsidised by government.
They also recommend reforms to the “Cinderella sector” of further education colleges. Major says he suspects the reason they have been so neglected is because “none of the ministers went to one”. Securing higher wage gains for those at the lower end of the economy is as crucial as educational reforms, adds Machin. The picture is not unremittingly bleak. Machin insists that children being condemned to occupy the social position of their parents need not be “a permanent fixture” and recommends we look to Scandinavia “where mobility is much higher, where people aren’t paying huge house price premiums to live near the best school. In Finland, everybody goes to their local school; all the schools are good”.
He adds: “The very optimistic line on that would be that everybody would be better off if everyone took collective responsibility.” But the conundrum will be with us for many decades, if not centuries, to come. The duo point to research examining not just intergenerational mobility (the link between one generation and the next), but multi-generational persistence. According to one study, descendants of elites slip down to average status only after 10 or even 15 generations – or 300 to 450 years.
“My view is that if you don’t do something about it, society as a whole will suffer,” says Major. “If you don’t have any social mobility, you get less representative, and I believe less effective, elites.” Another symptom, he adds, is “an increasingly polarised and populist politics”.
But surely those at the top – the most insulated from social or economic shocks and those with the levers of power to hand – are the least likely to care? “Yeah, but there has to be a tipping point at some point,” warns Machin. “Suppose it got worse, suppose the social fabric really degenerated because of some of this stuff, then there would be a tipping point when people…”
Major interjects: “Some academics predict a revolution.”
- ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin (£8.99, Pelican) is out now
FAST FACTS: SOCIAL MOBILITY
In 1980, a worker 10 per cent from the top was earning 2.75 times more than a worker 10 per cent from the bottom. By 2017, the difference was four times.
England has more people than other comparable countries in low-skilled jobs; a third of workers are in posts that require less than secondary school education to perform.
Privately schooled students are less likely to leave university with a top degree than state-educated graduates. Yet low-attaining children born in 1970 from advantaged backgrounds “retained their high status despite their lack of talent, which would predict more lowly positions”.