Friday, 18 March 2016

Social Mobility and Education

The trope of intergenerational fairness implies that wealth does not easily move between generations, despite successive government's efforts since the 1980s to facilitate inheritance and offshore trust funds. In reality, wealth (in the sense of patrimonial capital) has never been more mobile. The real issue is that it struggles to move beyond already wealthy families. This implied "stickiness" between the generations plays to the idea that society is prone to inertia, which appeals both to conservatives, who are only too happy to see this as the natural order, obscuring the constant effort required to maintain social inequities, and to liberals, who can cast inertia as the impersonal condition against which reform must contend. A modern spin on the notion of inertia is the widespread belief in declining social mobility: that society has become less fluid over the last 30 years.

As John Goldthorpe has regularly pointed out, this belief arises from a popular confusion between absolute and relative mobility: "Absolute rates refer to the actual proportions of individuals of given class origins who are mobile to different class destinations, while relative rates compare the chances of individuals of differing class origins arriving at different class destinations and thus indicate the extent of social fluidity". Absolute mobility increased during the middle years of the twentieth century largely because the shift to a service economy and the development of the welfare state created more middle class jobs. Bluecollar parents begot whitecollar children. Relative mobility stayed pretty constant over the century, largely because the mechanisms used to maintain privilege across generations (private education, professional nepotism and business inheritance), and thus limit downward mobility, were not seriously undermined during the social democratic era and were then reinforced after 1979.

A headline conclusion arising from Goldthorpe's analysis is that "Decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility". In fact, this sub-editorial simplicity needs some unpacking. Judged in instrumental terms, as a strategy to provide appropriately trained workers for the economy, the  postwar investment in education was highly successful. Investment since 1979 has delivered a poor return in respect of absolute mobility, but this is a consequence of further structural change in the economy (essentially job polarisation) rather than an over-supply of graduates. In respect of relative mobility, variations in the level of educational investment have made little difference, not just because of the strength of intergenerational privilege but because the channels that facilitate mobility for the highly talented have largely remained open: some kids from comprehensives still get to Oxbridge. The recent angst over the working class being excluded from careers in acting and popular music is simply those sectors reverting to the mean.

The political problem for education is that the historic case for investment emphasised national social mobility (individuals "getting on") as much as national economic benefit. A cynic might argue that this was necessary to secure the electoral support of a working class that might otherwise be unconvinced of the utility of education - a common attitude until the 1960s. In the immediate postwar period, when there were many competing demands on public expenditure and the NHS and pensions figured prominently on most workers' wish-lists, state education required a compelling narrative to secure popular support. A central criticism of the tripartite system introduced by the Butler Act was that such a narrative, i.e. one that worked beyond the parents fortunate enough to get their children through the 11-plus, was lacking. The emerging consensus on comprehensivisation in the 1960s was based on the belief that "life chances" needed to be opened up for an entire generation, not just a select few.

Social mobility thus became a justification for both investment in and reform of education, which in turn encouraged the belief that educational attainment was the primary driver of mobility. The downsides to the fetishisation of education were recognised early on, famously in Michael Young's 1958 dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Toby's dad (was there ever better evidence that intelligence in not heritable?) early got the measure of Tony Blair's commitment to "education, education, education". More fundamentally, having been an intimate of many of the leading lights of the Labour Party since the 1940s, he was acutely aware of the way that educational deracination served to disempower the labour movement, contributing to the disillusion and alienation of today (it's worth noting in passing that Corbyn's lack of a degree elicits sneers on both sides of the House of Commons).

One implication of Goldthorpe's thesis is that the meritocratic spirit of the postwar era was over-stated. The upward progress of the "baby boomers" owed more to a rising tide than personal talent, let alone the magical properties of grammar schools (post hoc ergo propter hoc, as the latinists would say). Another implication is that structural change will also drive future perception. As automation and job polarisation increasingly displace whitecollar roles, social mobility may come to be seen primarily in terms of the threat of declassment, i.e. movement downwards. Given the high levels of anxiety already associated with education, it is easy to envisage a shift towards greater elitism under cover of academisation, though this might also prompt a reaction by the "marginalised middle", much as comprehensivisation was boosted by middle-class parents whose kids failed the 11-plus.

Goldthorpe's conclusion is that relative social mobility cannot be improved without addressing inequality of condition - i.e. the material and cultural circumstances of families - and that improving absolute mobility requires economic development to create more top-end jobs, meaning "Policies aimed at raising our presently poor level of investment in research and development, at creating a modernised and environmentally friendly infrastructure, and at the progressive upgrading of the quality of all social and other public services". All political parties will sign-up to this in principle, but practical policies will - if recent history is any guide - be wholly inadequate. However, this two-step on Goldthorpe's part means we don't challenge that first assertion: that improving relative social mobility cannot be done through education and that substantive change would require a major reordering of society that (by implication) isn't going to happen any time soon.

But is this true? Are there no changes that can be made in the educational sphere that would help improve relative mobility? Bear in mind that while absolute mobility may depend on historically unusual periods of growth and rapid structural change, relative mobility can be improved regardless of economic performance or job composition. It's about flow rather than stock. Of course, this means accepting increased rates of downward mobility, which is where the political resistance (Goldthorpe emphasises "loss aversion") comes in. But there may be ways of doing this that could be sold as fair and democratic, while also accepting that middle class advantage will not wholly be done away with, which would be necessary to secure broad political support.

An example would be to ration places at top universities across all schools and six-form colleges. In other words, Eton students would get no more Oxbridge places pro-rata than a "bog standard" comprehensive. Of course the chief beneficiary of such a change would actually be the middle class, at the expense of the upper class, but it would probably promote more working class kids as well, much as comprehensivisation and the expansion of further education in the 1960s did. The point is not that this would be a panacea for social mobility, but that our thinking on the relationship of education to relative mobility is constrained by the ideology of education: the hierarchy, the competition, the obsession over "grade inflation" and "gold standards". The irony of Goldthrope's gloomy prognosis is that he doesn't extend his structuralist analysis to education itself.


  1. "Toby's dad (was there ever better evidence that intelligence in not heritable?)"

    The best line this week. Thanks for that.

  2. Herbie Kills Children20 March 2016 at 10:51

    For me the whole social mobility narrative is opposed to a left wing political outlook.

    I am reminded here of Paul Mason and his argument that progressive politics should be focused on the use of technology to eradicate unskilled, boring and undesirable work. I think this outlook belies the underlying sense of entitlement among certain sections of the population. While the argument for automation is fair enough the response to dead end jobs is not to argue they should be eradicated (many simply can't be anyway) but instead Paul mason should be arguing that people like him should share in the burden of doing such work! The fact this hasn't crossed his mind is telling and in fact shows the problem with aspiration, social mobility etc. It is built on a prejudice, and what flows from it is pure prejudice.

    1. I agree social mobility is ideologically problematic, both in its valorisation of "getting on" and the debilitating impact it has on working class politics through deracination. My point was more that Goldthorpe's conclusion - that education does more to limit social mobility than enable it - reflects a limiting belief about the potential for social engineering.