Social mobility can’t be fixed by better educating those already succeeding

John Major’s comments on Monday, criticising the UK for a lack of social mobility, sparked numerous comments on the failure of our non-selective schools and Universities.  Some even used the UK’s lowly position in an OECD education league table to criticise British schools for failing their pupils. But this misses the real cause of our lack of social mobility and educational travails – inequality. The UK’s education system is pretty good at educating young people, it’s just far better at educating the ‘elite’.

For some education isn’t failing to deliver massive gains. In the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) annual lecture Stephen Machin illustrated this point brilliantly (26:00).Even though more people are graduates than ever before, the gap between graduates and non-graduates is also bigger than ever before. The value of a degree hasn’t diluted, it has increased. The UK is also the only country other than the USA with a university in the top 10 in any of the major world rankings. As Prof Machin explained (57:00) the OECD key findings are on the low levels of literacy and numeracy at the bottom end of the UK. The UK, whilst doing well at teaching those with high skill levels, is failing those with low or intermediate skill levels.

Grammar schools don’t help with this educational inequality because they are designed to help those already doing well at school do better. This educational inequality affects social mobility, because educational performance is predicted by income. There is a straight forward relationship between parental income and cognitive development. Those with lower parental income score lower for cognitive development at an age 3 and the gap increases by age 5[1]. And these scores are a good predictor for earnings in later life[2]. Those higher up the income spectrum can buy their way into better schools either directly by going private or by paying a premium to live closer to a better state school. Where this remains the case it seems greatly misguided to think that improving the results of those who are doing well at school will increase social mobility. Equal opportunity, where the circumstances of a person’s birth are not strong predictors of their outcomes, requires a different sort of education system and a different sort of society.

More equal societies have more social mobility. This is partly because there’s less income disparity between what parents will invest in their children, but partly because more equal societies are also better at educating their whole society in basic skills in literacy and numeracy[3].


[1] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[2] Allen 2011