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Book review: Social Mobility And Its Enemies

  • 9 January 2019
  • By Anand Shukla

This book review has been kindly written for HEPI by Anand Shukla, Chief Executive of the online mentoring charity Brightside

The importance of social mobility is a rare area of policy consensus between the main UK political parties. Given the decline of intergenerational social mobility in the last 50 years, it also happens to be a clear policy failure. Of the children born into the bottom income quintile in 1958, only a quarter remain in the bottom fifth as adults. For children born in 1970, that percentage climbs to 35 per cent. Apart from the USA, Britain has the lowest social mobility in the Western world.

Aimed at the lay reader, Social Mobility: And its enemies by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin is a clearly written, accessible and useful primer to the social mobility debate. The book provides a clear summary of the academic literature in the field and ends with a series of policy recommendations.

There’s no shortage of books and research reports on social mobility, and one of the things that brings this book to life is the combination of lively prose and the telling statistical vignette. I particularly enjoyed the section on the education arms race and the pitch perfect description of the neurotic behaviour of middle class parents where ‘maximising children’s talents is a full-time obsession: ferrying them from sports practice to musical renditions, scheduling tutoring sessions and extra classes over weekends … driven by a neurotic fear that no matter what they have done, it is never quite enough.’

We learn of the explosion in private tutoring in the UK, particularly in London where 42% of young people in 2016 said that they had received some form of tutoring.

And we see the rush to a mass higher education system laid bare. In 1990, nine per cent of 26-to-30 year olds were university graduates, whereas by 2015, 39% of 26-30 year olds had a degree. Few countries in the world have expanded their universities at such breakneck speed.

Education has been the main social mobility policy lever by governments of all political hues in the last three decades. And yet, as Elliot Major and Machin rightly argue, the idea that education is a great social leveller is a myth. ‘In no developed country for which we have data is there evidence that early-years centres, schools or colleges consistently reduce attainment gaps, and life prospects, between the rich and the poor’.

This is not to argue that education isn’t transforming lots of individual lives. The number of children on free school meals passing national school benchmarks at the age of 16 and going to university has rocketed in recent years. But the benefit that education can provide is limited to being a counter-balance to the income, wealth and cultural disparities within society.

And inevitably, as competition to their status has increased, middle-class families have responded to maintain their position in the social order.

Elliot Major and Machin cite a study of university personal statements which reveal a gulf in quality and style between independent and state school applicants. They cite one independent school 18 year old student’s statement which could almost be read as a parody of privilege and connections – this student had worked ‘for a designer in London; as a model; on the trading floor of a London broker’s firm; with my local BBC radio station; events planning with a corporate five-star country hotel; in the marketing team of a leading city law firm … and most recently managing a small gastro pub.’ The contrast with state-school pupils from low-income backgrounds struggling to draw on suitable life and work experiences is stark and depressing.

The importance of life skills and social networks (social capital) strikes a particular chord. The online mentoring organisation Brightside was set up to build social capital amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Typically lacking such advice and knowledge within their own immediate family and community networks, students are given access to a network of people to ask for advice and support about post-school pathways into higher education and careers. And in the last 15 years, Brightside has worked with over 100,000 young people brokering access to new relationships and networks.

Accumulating life skills such as self-belief, confidence and hope, together with social and cultural capital is instrumental to future life prospects – something which is intuitively understood by the affluent. Elliot Major and Machin cite US research which shows that the richest families spend seven times more on out of school cultural enrichment (for example, museum visits) than the poorest families – and that this is a much bigger gap than 40 years before.

So, what is to be done? Here (as so often in such publications), the recommendations can appear modest given the scale of the challenges set out. We see familiar calls for the reform of inheritance tax, the closing of tax loopholes, pay increases at the bottom; the expansion of apprenticeships and so on.

As important as these measures might be, they do not offer the structural change required to address the entrenched levels of social inequality set out in the book.

One omission in the book is a discussion of the importance of place. Britain’s centralised state and dependence upon London (whose population is as big as the population of the next biggest 16 cities in the UK combined – a truly staggering statistic) is not addressed here. And this matters – social mobility must mean more than a one-way ticket to London. As Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton have recently argued in Saving Britain – how we must change to survive and prosper in Europe, dispersing political power and moving national institutions out of London is a necessary pre-condition for the more equal distribution of opportunities across the UK. Indeed, as anchor employers in their regions, universities are well aware of the importance of strong regional institutions in providing opportunity.

When it comes to education reform, Elliot Major and Machin are bolder – calling for lotteries for school admission and random selection for universities once a threshold of academic excellence has been achieved. Their discussion of the Texas or California system – where a university place is guaranteed to the top 10% of academic performing pupils in each state school in a local region or across the country would be transformational.

Again though, the existing higher education structure is left intact. More radical suggestions, such as Tim Blackman’s call for a comprehensive university system to challenge our status-ridden, hyper-selective system of higher education, are not explored.

Overall, this is a clearly written book underlining how unequal and immobile UK society is, and persuasively sets out the economic and social benefits which would result from greater social diversity.


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