The right questions to ask about social mobility

Posted on November 16, 2016

Hand-wringing about social mobility in the UK is as reliable a generator of conversation as the weather, and about as productive. Such debate, caught up as it is in Britain’s complex obsession with class, rarely produces much more than another round of anecdote-based arguments about whether grammar schools are a good thing or not.

A rather more useful contribution to this issue comes from the annual report of the official Social Mobility Commission. It makes valuable points about the multi-faceted nature of deprivation, and ways to counter it. In truth the report is about inequality as much as mobility, and the better for it.

It is well established that the UK tends to languish towards the bottom of international league tables of social mobility — defined as people ending up in a different occupational or social class, or a different point on the income scale, to their parents. When measured over a long period on a basis of occupation — the only measure for which consistent data exist going back several decades — mobility has fallen.

Yet that reflects the fact that the structure of the economy changed radically between the 1960s and 1980s, as blue-collar jobs were replaced by white-collar, a transformation that later slowed. Correcting for this effect, social mobility in the UK has not changed much over time. Certainly the abolition of grammar schools in the 1960s and 1970s did not have the deleterious effect their champions suggest. Theresa May’s call to bring grammars back is a substitute for serious thinking, not evidence of it, and the report correctly dismisses the proposal.

What the report does show is growing inequities — not necessarily in income, where inequality has been more or less constant since the early 1990s, but between generations and regions. There is a marked difference in home ownership, traditionally one of the most important forms of household saving and wealth, between old and young. And areas such as north-east England have fallen well behind London and the south-east in terms of income and educational achievement.

There is nothing inevitable about these spatial and generational inequalities. To some extent, they have been caused by underlying economic change. Regions heavily dependent on declining manufacturing industries have suffered and children from poorer families tend to do worse at school. But those can be countered by offering extra help. As the report suggests, the “pupil premium” that provides more educational funding to children from low-income families could be increased, and teachers paid more to work in the schools that most need them. London has radically improved school performance by raising the achievements of poorer children; the success can be replicated elsewhere.

Some inequalities are also the result of distortions introduced by regulations. Restrictions on the building of houses, especially in London and the south-east of England, have driven up home values and helped to price out younger buyers. The political constraints are considerable: Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has already set his face against building on the greenbelt. But this is a matter of will, not a lack of a feasible solution.

Any attempt at a catch-all solution to inequality — still less social mobility — in Britain misunderstands the nature of the problem, and will fail. The UK is not becoming less mobile, nor even less equal in income terms, over time. But inequities have arisen that can and should be addressed by targeted government intervention, and policymakers ought to look closely at the report’s helpful suggestions about how to do so.

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