Social Mobility Will Not Happen Without Greater Equality

We were pleased to be invited recently (via The Sutton Trust) to make a submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility Inquiry into the Regional Attainment Gap, which you can read below.


The Equality Trust regards regional disparities, including in educational attainment, as a component part of overall economic and social inequality in the UK. There is undoubtedly merit in spreading best practice from higher achieving regions to worse performing regions but the best and most strategic approach to improving educational attainment across all regions, would be to make the UK more equal.

The evidence

There is ample evidence that more equal countries produce better educational results and have better social mobility. Put simply, greater equality of outcomes narrows the rungs on the ladder of opportunity and makes socio-economic advancement less “sticky” – i.e. less adhered to – and dependent upon – parental resources and social status. For more detail on the precise mechanisms that flow from inequality to low social mobility, our research digest on social mobility from 2012 is helpful.

In 2011, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded, in a wide-ranging study of the available evidence, that it is “likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality”. We would contend that this is still very much the case and in April last year our co-founders and Trustees, Profs Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (authors of The Spirit Level and The Inner Level), in a review of the issue, concluded that “without equality of income there can be no equality of opportunity”.

Our vast income inequality in the UK is also fuelling a rise and entrenchment in wealth inequality. Excessive top incomes and bonuses quickly translate into assets, notably property. This vast wealth inequality has a chilling effect on social mobility and opportunity. As Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation put it recently“To paraphrase the French economist Thomas Piketty, who was born with what and who marries whom might make for a good Jane Austen novel, but it can’t be an acceptable answer to the kind of country we want to build.”

This is compounded by the fact that the less intelligent, less able and less industrious rich (due to their connections and existing wealth) tend not to fall down the economic and social pecking order, thereby hoarding opportunity and limiting the opportunities of those seeking to rise. In these ways it is easy to see the truth of Michael Young’s famous insight that meritocracy can quickly give way to aristocracy and that the whole concept of social mobility could even be seen as something of a red herring as our Executive Director, Dr Wanda Wyporska, outlined in her recent TEDx Oxford talk.


To genuinely improve social mobility in the UK, the over-arching policy priority has to be for a massive and sustained reduction in economic inequality (so both income and wealth). This will require bold policies and, crucially, for such policies to be carried forward as an integrated Inequality Reduction Strategy, embedded across all government departments. Our new national Manifesto for a Fairer Society outlines the sort of policy changes required.

While we support the dissemination of best practice that promotes high educational attainment we are sceptical that it will have much impact. Interventions that try to correct for the impact of inequality on social mobility (early years education intervention, parenting interventions and so on) have (a) a very weak evidence base and (b) fail to address the “causes of the causes” (thus the interventions will be needed for ever and ever) and are (c) very expensive and, therefore, subject to changes in governments and political priorities (and in relation to political priorities, we would like to state that there is no evidence that expanding grammar schools will improve our education system or our chronic social immobility, in fact, quite the reverse).

In any event, such interventions cannot be expected to correct the enormous dead-weight of problems created by inequality for families – debt, long working hours and chronic stress leading to more mental and physical illness. 

The Equality Trust