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Social mobility

Policy areas

Social mobility involves a change in your class (e.g. from working class to middle class) or your income (e.g. from the lowest income quartile to the highest). In recent years, UK governments have become convinced that Britain is a 'closed shop society' in which there is little movement between social classes or income bands, and they think things are getting worse. The Coalition government's social mobility 'Tsar', Alan Milburn, told Radio 4, 'In this country, if you're born poor, you die poor.'

Statements like this are outrageous (80% of people born in households below the poverty line escape poverty when they reach adulthood). Yet such claims are rarely challenged, for most academics, politicians and journalists assume that social background shapes people's life chances much more than their talent or hard work. In my work, I show that Britain is a remarkably open, meritocratic society, and that the key factors influencing where we end up are our ability and motivation, not social origins.




2012: Social Mobility Delusions (published by Civitas) shows politicians are wrong to say Britain is bottom of the international mobility rankings. Nor is mobility declining, nor are bright poor kids falling behind dull rich kids at school

Social Mobility Myths (published by Civitas) explains why politicians are wrong when they claim Britain is a 'closed shop society'. "A devastating book" (Prospect magazine).
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2007: 'The limits to meritocracy' In G. Dench (ed),
The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy (London, Young Foundation)
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2002: 'Reflections on the meritocracy debate in Britain'
British Journal of Sociology vol.53
View abstract

1999: 'Routes of success: Influences on the occupational attainment of young British males' British Journal of Sociology, vol.50 (with Rod Bond)
Download available

1999: 'Explaining gender differences in achievement in higher education' in P.Fogelberg, J.Hearn, L.Husu and T.Mankkinen (eds),
Hardwork in the Academy, Helsinki University Press (with Ruth Woodfield)

1997: 'Social mobility in Britain: An empirical evaluation of two competing explanations'
Sociology, vol. 31
View abstract

1996: 'A British Bell Curve?'
Sociology Review, vol. 6

Unequal But Fair? A Study of Class Barriers in Britain Civitas (out of print)

1995: 'Might Britain be a meritocracy?'
Sociology, vol. 29
Download available

1994: 'Social mobility and meritocracy' in D.Marsland (ed)
Work and employment in liberal democratic societies Paragon House
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Discussion of grammar schools, positive discrimination and meritocracy
BBC Radio 4 'The Moral Maze', 15 March 2017

Letter on meritocracy and grammar school selection
The Times 13 March 2017

Article on elite recruitment and the public schools
Daily Telegraph, 31 May 2016

Comments on politicians' claims that social mobility in Britain has 'collapsed'
Voice of Russia, 14 November 2013 - listen
Radio 5 Live, 14 November 2013 - listen

Response to Sir John Major's speech on the 'collapse' of social mobility
Conservative Home, 12 November 2013

Letter on success rates of middle class and working class children
The Times, 23 October 2013

Letter discussing the link between IQ and social class
The Spectator, 3 August 2013

Discussion of meritocracy and fairness
BBC Radio 4, 'The Moral Maze', 24 July 2013

Interview about ethnic differences in educational attainment
LBC Radio interview with Julia Hartley Brewer, 23 July 2013

Interview on latest claims that Britain has a damaging social mobility problem
Voice of Russia news broadcast, 20 November 2012

The Sutton Trust's claims about social mobility in Britain must be challenged
Letter in The Sunday Times, 4 November 2012

Debate on social mobility with Labour Uncut's Kevin Meagher, author Robert Kelsey, former MP Michael Meadowcroft and the IEA's Richard Wellings
Voice of Russia broadcast, 3 July 2012

Politicians have got the facts of social mobility badly wrong
LBC Radio interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer, 21 June 2012

Social mobility delusions
BBC Radio 4
Today, 21 June 2012

Parenting matters, but ability is the key factor shaping educational and occupational achievement.
Contribution to BBC Radio 4 programme, The Class Ceiling, 1 & 8 September 2011
Listen to extracts

Hard work and motivation are important, but talent matters more (debate with Matthew Syed, chaired by John Humphreys)
BBC Radio 4
Today, 11 May 2011

Success reflects hard work and talent more than class background
News 24 interview with Huw Edwards, 5 April 2011

The government's gloomy message on social mobility undermines people's motivation
Sky News interview with Kay Burley, 5 April 2011

Middle class children do better because bright successful parents tend to produce bright successful children
BBC Radio Five Live,
Breakfast, 5 April 2011

Do we really need the government to boost social mobility?
LBC Radio, 31 March 2011

It's a mistake to force universities to admit poorer students on lower grades
The Daily Telegraph, 9 February 2011

If you're bright and work hard you'll succeed
'Who Gets the Best Jobs?', 2 February 2011
View clip

Debate on TUC report on social mobility
BBC Radio 4,
Today, 17 August 2010

Busting the myth of our rigid classes
The Sunday Times 6 June 2010

Debate on class in Britain
BBC Radio 4,
The Moral Maze 2001
Listen (my segment from 12 mins)

Why intelligence must vary with class but not with race
The Independent, 25 October 1994

Social Mobility Myths Presentation to Grammar School Heads' annual conference (19 June 2013)
View slides

Speech to the Cambridge Union (25 October 2012), opposing the motion: This House believes class runs Britain (my contribution from 35 mins in)
Watch video

Social mobility myths
(2 October 2012). Presentation to Head Masters' Conference annual conference, Europa Hotel, Belfast (updated and revised version)
View slides

Social Mobility Myths and their significance
(7 June 2011). Presentation to the Annual Conference of the Forum of Independent Day Schools, meeting at Hampton School.
View slides

Lunchtime talk on social mobility at Civitas (4 November 2010)
Read handout

Are we still a classless society Mr Cameron? Battle of Ideas, University of London (31 October 2010). With Daily Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire, marxist sociologist Neil Davenport and journalist Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal.
Watch video

Is Britain Really a "Closed Shop Society"? Presentation to Dept of Work Pensions seminar, London (13 August 2010)
View slides

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