The limits of social mobility

John GoldthorpeIn his Observer article a couple of weeks ago, the sociologist John Goldthorpe shatters two cherished illusions: first, that social mobility in Britain is in decline and second, that education is a powerful agent for promoting social mobility.

1. Social mobility is not in decline:

Goldthorpe has demonstrated that there has been little change in relative social mobility. The evidence is that “the inherent ‘stickiness’ between the class positions of parents and their children has remained unchanged”. When the economy is growing and opportunities for better paid jobs are increasing there is clearly more ‘room at the top’ and upward mobility increases to take up the growing opportunities. This is what happened in the post-war decades; most people find themselves standing on an ‘up’ escalator. But this process has been in reverse for a while now and more people are at risk of downward mobility. This increases the stakes in the competition to keep up and people find themselves on a ‘down’ escalator trying to run upwards ever faster to avoid being downwardly mobile. But overall, in relative terms, the degree of social mobility across society has not changed much.

2. Education has not improved social mobility:

In the labour market, education can be regarded as a relative positional good. ‘More’ education or the achieving of more, and higher level, qualifications confers benefits to individuals, but these advantages are relative. In other words, beyond a basic level of education, what matters isn’t how ‘much’ education one has but how ‘much’ one has relative to everyone else. Qualifications are more valuable in the labour market if they are more scarce in the population. Goldthorpe says: “If the aim is to increase social mobility by creating a greater equality in relative mobility chances, what can be achieved through education policy alone is limited – far more so than politicians find it convenient to suppose.”

Goldthorpe sums up his case concisely:

“Across successive birth cohorts, the association between individuals’ class origins and their educational attainment does not change, and neither does the association between their educational attainment and their eventual class destinations, or not in any consistent way.”

3. Depressing or liberating?

This may come as a bit of a shock to educators, particularly those of us who are committed to transforming the life chances of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also takes the wind out of the sails of those politicians and policy-makers who have made ‘education for social mobility’ their credo. Nevertheless, it seems we need to consign ‘social mobility for all through education’ to the dustbin of edu-myths – together with that other staple ‘qualifications create jobs’

Goldthorpe’s analysis may seem depressing if we take it to mean that all our efforts are in vain. However, it can also free us up to renew our commitment to both equality and education as valuable aims of themselves.

If we accept that education on its own will not make a highly unequal society fairer and more equal, we could then concentrate on what economic and social policies would actually make our society more equal: reducing poverty, redistributing wealth and protecting the poorest from the fear of exclusion and destitution. In a more equal society, the gains and losses involved in moving ‘up’ or ‘down’ are not so great and people can make more of their life decisions based on their actual skills and interests. We could also consider how best to invest in creating more jobs for our young people in order to meet our social needs.

And far from giving up on education as a vitally important transformative process, we could be deciding what we actually mean by a good education: one which helps all young people to flourish, fulfil themselves, live a good life and contribute to society – rather than simply being about accumulating credit to be exchanged for relative advantage in a labour market which offers diminishing returns.

John Goldthorpe’s sobering analysis may challenge some cherished beliefs but we can use it to liberate ourselves from a narrow economic justification for education and to renew our commitment to real education and real equality.

See also:

Is social mobility enough? (April 2015)

Do qualificaions create wealth? (January 2015)

Market madness #5 Qualifications as currency (December 2014)

Martin Allen posting in ‘Education, economy and society’ on Social mobility’s ups and downs (March 2016)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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