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It’s a myth there is less social mobility

Dominic Lawson
Sunday Times, 21 October 2012
http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/columns/dominiclawson/article1152975.ece (subscription required)

In imperial Russia, to question the word of the tsar was social death — or worse. He had absolute authority, sanctified by religious orthodoxy. This might explain the reverence accorded to Alan Milburn, the former Labour minister, who has been accorded the absurd title of “social mobility tsar”.
Last Thursday he launched his latest report and recommendations, by means of a lengthy interview on the BBC’s Today programme. To say it was respectful of Tsar Alan would be an understatement.
In what is normally an intensely adversarial programme, there was no other speaker to represent a different viewpoint; and the interviewer did not even attempt to challenge any of Milburn’s assertions — for example his report’s demand that our leading universities weaken their entry requirements for applicants from poorer households. This is deemed to be egalitarian; in fact it is to treat such children as second-class citizens.
Above all, what is regarded as the BBC’s most rigorous and even iconoclastic current-affairs programme did not begin to ask the most basic question of all: is it really true that we are a country with unusually low levels of social mobility, and that we have become ever more ossified as a society?
The BBC might have thought of inviting John Goldthorpe, emeritus fellow of sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford, who produced his own report last week, entitled Understanding — and Misunderstanding — Social Mobility in Britain. Goldthorpe — whose area of expertise is “social stratification” — is withering in his contempt for the unthinking orthodoxy on this topic: “A remarkable consensus has emerged in political and also in media circles that social mobility is in decline and has reached an exceptionally low level . . . or has even ‘ground to a halt’.”
Going into enormous detail, by looking at all academic literature on social class and income, rather than cherry-picking, Goldthorpe concludes that in Britain “no decline in mobility, absolute or relative, occurred in the late 20th century — contrary to the widely accepted ‘factoid’ . . . rates remained much the same as for decades previously, although if any directional change were in evidence it was an actual increase in fluidity among women. This alternative view is grounded in a number of quite independent studies that have produced highly consistent findings.”
The only real sense in which Britain has a social mobility problem is that there exists what some call an underclass Goldthorpe, it should be said, is not someone trying to justify the British class system, such as it is. His approach is strongly rooted in Marxist analysis (his current research is on “mobility patterns in capitalist and state socialist societies”); but he is scandalised by the lack of any intellectual underpinning to the consensus that British society has become something akin to the Indian caste system.
It is striking (though possibly inevitable) that all of Milburn’s recommendations — and indeed every government edict designed to “increase social mobility” — are limited to the education system.
So, for example, Milburn demands that universities do much more within schools to help teach pupils from less affluent areas how to get higher examination grades.
Leave aside the question of whether it is right to make universities thus displace resources from their own (fee-paying) students; should higher education be the solitary tool for enforcing greater levels of social mobility?
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in almost Stalinist language, has declared that our best universities should be “engines of social mobility”. No, they should be places where those most suited to advanced studies are given the most rigorous education by the most brilliant academics.
If there is a single organisation that has most influenced government and the media into the mindset that we have become a uniquely stodgy society and that education is the only tool to reduce the alleged viscosity, it is the Sutton Trust, an organisation devoted to precisely this cause. Yet even the trust’s own figures show that 62% of the sons born in 1970 to fathers in the lowest income quartile escaped into the higher three quartiles. Set that against Milburn’s pronouncement, in an earlier Today programme interview, that “in this country, if you are born poor, you die poor” and you can see what scant respect the social mobility tsar has for mere facts — and how he is allowed to get away with it.
The Sutton Trust’s figures also show that social mobility (as one would expect) is manifest in the opposite direction: only 42% of sons born in 1970 to fathers from the top income bracket managed to retain their family’s position in the highest income quartile — and 16% of those born in the top income quartile slid to the very bottom.
That may help to explain why, on most measures of comparison between developed economies, Britain is actually in the middle of the range for social mobility. It is true that we are less mobile, statistically, than Sweden; but given that Sweden has a smaller variation in salaries than Britain, and that these “class quartiles” are based on income, it is obvious why a country with narrower bands of income should report greater levels of “social mobility”, as people will move more often in and out of more bunched bands.
The same factor might also account for why, on some measures, we are less “socially mobile” than we were in the 1960s, when all that has changed is that nowadays skilled workers enjoy more of a salary differential over their unskilled compatriots, an aspect of globalisation that the British government has as much chance of reversing as Canute did the tides. The only difference is that King Canute told his courtiers that this was a futile endeavour; our own leaders in the Britain of the 21st century are more hubristic than that wise Viking.
Why they should behave in this way has been beautifully set out by another sociologist who has spent much of the past few years vainly trying to challenge the unthinking consensus: Peter Saunders of Sussex University. In his most recent attempt, Social Mobility Delusions, published by Civitas, Saunders observes that “the belief that Britain is an unfair, class-ridden country chimes with a long tradition of cultural and intellectual prejudice among opinion leaders.
The national consciousness has been shaped by generations of films, TV dramas and plays which routinely portray this country as rigidly class-divided. When someone comes along with evidence suggesting that we are actually a remarkably open country, many of us simply cannot accept it could be true.”
Both main political parties have powerful motives for wanting to be seen to be addressing the illusory problem of social immobility. Labour views it as an increasingly fruitful way of re-emphasising its critique (or insult) that the government represents nothing more than an unmeritocratic and out-of-touch upper class. David Cameron and indeed Nick Clegg are not only desperate to counter that narrative; in the field of education they see the threat of fines on universities that fail to meet “social mobility targets” as a way of neutralising some of the poison caused by the tripling of university fees.
As Saunders points out, the only real sense in which Britain has a social mobility problem is that there exists what some call an underclass: the product of the decline in the traditional manufacturing industries, the rise in welfare dependency and the breakdown of the family in areas especially afflicted by that blight.

Whatever our social mobility tsar might decree, that will not be addressed by hectoring the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to lower their entry requirements: the wrong answer to the wrong question.


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