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Letter to Michael Gove 13.10.12

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Letter written to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, on 13 October 2012:

Dear Mr Gove,

While I greatly admire what you are doing to improve schooling in this country, I am dismayed by some of the claims you have been making about the lack of opportunity for children from poorer backgrounds in this country.

At the Conservative Party conference this week, you said: "In England, if you're born poor, you're overwhelmingly likely to...stay poor. It's a scandal."

This simply isn't true. While research for the Rowntree Foundation shows that males born to poor families are twice as likely as others to end up poor themselves, this still means that 81% of them escape poverty as adults (see Jo Blanden and Steve Gibbons, The persistence of poverty across generations, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2006, Table 2).

This is not the first example I have come across of your speeches badly misrepresenting what is actually going on.

For example, citing the famous Feinstein graph, you told the Commons Education Select Committee in 2010: ‘In effect, rich thick kids do better than poor clever children when they arrive at school, and the situation as they go through gets worse.’ But work at the Institute of Education (John Jerrim and Anna Vignoles, ‘The use and misuse of statistics in understanding social mobility: Regression to the mean and the cognitive development of high ability children from disadvantaged homes’ Department of Quantitative Social Science Working Paper no.11-01, April 2011, Institute of Education) shows this apparent effect is entirely due to a statistical artifact (regression to the mean). When you control for this, no such trend can be found.

I am enormously concerned that government thinking is being driven by false information about social mobility rates in Britain, and I would please urge you to familiarise yourself with evidence beyond the material being fed to ministers by the Sutton Trust. I recently wrote a short review of the key evidence, which was published by Civitas and can be downloaded here:

and just this week, the guru of social mobility research in this country, Professor John Goldthorpe, also published a paper which similarly demonstrates why so much of what the government seems to believe about social mobility is actually false:

It is worth reading both, as I come at this from the right and Goldthorpe from the left - but we both agree on what the evidence is saying. I would urge you to spend an hour looking through this material - and perhaps then urging your colleagues (as well as Mr Milburn and Mr Clegg) to take a look at it too. At the moment, policy is being made on the basis of quite erroneous assumptions. What is even more worrying, you and your colleagues are making claims which must be wholly dispiriting to youngsters from poorer backgrounds who actually enjoy much greater opportunities than you are recognising.

Best wishes

Peter Saunders
(Emeritus Professor, University of Sussex, and Professorial Fellow at Civitas)

Response received 18 October from Karen Sheerer, Private Secretary to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP:

Dear Professor Saunders,
Michael Gove has asked me to thank you very much for your email and for taking the time to write to him.
You and Professor Goldthorpe have made powerful cases which Michael’s team is examining.
Dominic Cummings is one of Michael’s Special Advisers and you are welcome to contact him direct at
Kind regards,

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