Education and social mobility: the limits

“Our schools should be engines of social mobility, providing every child with the knowledge, skills and aspirations they need to fulfill their potential.”

Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, Cabinet Office, 2011

By identifying schools as potential engines of social mobility the coalition government is following a well-trodden path. Education is frequently cited as being central to increasing levels of social mobility. The basic idea is that a good quality education can create opportunities for people that might not have been available to them without it, perhaps because of their social background or some other reason. As is often the case with simple ideas that become widely accepted, intuitive appeal conceals a deeper complexity. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that education can affect social mobility the extent to which it can do so is open to question. In what follows I examine several reasons why the potential for education to improve social mobility might be limited, what those limits are and briefly consider what this might mean for how we approach both education and social mobility as political issues.

Discussions about social mobility are often clouded by a failure to define what we mean by the concept. Often no distinction is made between absolute and relative mobility, despite the fact that it is practically impossible to meaningfully discuss social mobility without doing so. Absolute mobility concerns an individual’s movement in relation to a particular value, such as parental income or level of education. Relative mobility, by contrast, involves movement from a particular rank in the societal distribution. Although technical, the distinction is important for two reasons. Firstly, an increase in one does not necessarily entail an increase in the other. If from one generation to the next incomes across the board rose by 10% then absolute social mobility will have increased. However, because everyone’s income will have increased by the same proportion then relative social mobility will most likely have remained static. Secondly, relative social mobility is zero-sum. For one person to be able to rise up the ranks someone else has to move down.

Turning, with that distinction in mind, to the role of education in promoting social mobility, it is not difficult to identify some potential problems. One part of the dominant narrative with which it is easy to agree is that education is a key factor in determining someone’s life chances. It is also well established that there is a strong positive correlation between socio-economic background and academic attainment (commonly referred to as the attainment gap). Breaking that link would undoubtedly be a positive step. However, both the idea that it is possible to break that link and the view that doing so would necessarily improve social mobility are problematic.

Speaking in very broad terms there has been a two-pronged approach to tackling the attainment gap, involving both an emphasis on improving the quality of education generally and specific interventions aimed at low-attaining pupils. The limitations of the former approach are obvious. Although there is some evidence to suggest that improved education quality disproportionately benefits low-attaining pupils, because everyone benefits from better quality education it is unlikely to have anything more than a minimal impact on the gap. Even in the best schools students from better-off families outperform those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is because many things that determine academic attainment fall outside the formal structures of the education system. Anthony and Brian might attend the same schools and be taught by the same teachers, but if Brian arrives at primary school with a far more developed vocabulary and spends four hours a week with a private tutor the chances are that he is going to do better than Anthony. In other words, the degree of government control over an individual’s education is not sufficient to eliminate the influence of their background. Moreover, short of abandoning the principles of liberal democracy it is difficult to see how it could be any other way.

Targeted intervention aimed at particular groups is arguably more promising. Again, however, it has limitations. One reason for this is what John Goldthorpe, in an enlightening paper on this subject, calls the ‘self-maintaining properties’ of the status quo. This refers to the capacity of the wealthy to respond to changes in society that threaten their relative status by converting their financial capital into some additional form of advantage. Imagine, for example, a policy emerged which dramatically improved the GCSE attainment of those from less advantaged backgrounds. Recognising the value of being at the top of the attainment pile the obvious response for wealthy parents would be to invest more in their children’s education. This is not a purely hypothetical scenario. The last 15 years has seen a huge rise in the number of young people going to university. At the same time there has been a significant increase in the number of people taking post-graduate qualifications. A plausible explanation for this trend is that those able to afford post-graduate study are now choosing to do so more often in recognition of the fact that an undergraduate degree is no longer quite so exclusive a commodity.

This ability to adapt to threats to their social status also explains why it is not necessarily true that closing the attainment gap would significantly increase relative social mobility. Even if the correlation between socio-economic background and academic attainment were zero there is no guarantee that access to opportunities after education would be fair. The ability to undertake unpaid internships, stronger professional networks and higher levels of social capital are just three examples of other advantages that those higher up the income distribution enjoy that could (and often do) place them at an advantage in the job market.

If we make the distinction between absolute and relative social mobility we have little choice but to conclude that the potential for education to improve relative social mobility is limited. For those who care about social mobility this is a worrying conclusion. Education, which is so often held up as the means by which we can create a fairer society, may ultimately be unable to meet this heavy burden. None of this should in any way be taken as undermining attempts to reduce the attainment gap or to deny that education has an important role to play in improving social mobility. But it should mean that we spend more time looking for a broader range of solutions to improving social mobility. It should also mean that we are more cautious about justifying education policy as an instrument for promoting social mobility. Any increase in educational standards should be welcomed for what it is: an intrinsically valuable development.

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