07 November 2008
By Paul Dicken
Government research suggesting that social mobility is beginning to improve in the UK has been questioned by leading academics.
The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit published an analysis of the available evidence on social mobility, Getting on, getting ahead, on November 3, which suggested that 'positive changes' began to occur around the year 2000. This followed three decades when children failed to outdo their parents in academic achievement and income — the two principal measures of upward social mobility.
A series of government initiatives targeted at less well-off people, including the creation of academies, have been aimed at improving social mobility. Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne said: 'What seems clear is that despite the huge social, economic and political changes between 1970 and 2000, social mobility didn't go up — it stayed the same. Now, things look like they're starting to improve.'
Analysis of data based on GCSE results for children born in 1990 showed a 'statistically significant decline in the importance of family background on educational attainment compared to children born in 1970', the report suggested.
But Paul Gregg, professor of economics at Bristol University, told Public Finance that it was difficult to draw definite conclusions as the value of GCSEs could change over time as overall attainment increased.
He added, however: 'It's the first time we've got a positive sign that something is beginning to change.'
But Gregg said the onset of a recession could reverse any developing trend. It would potentially have adverse affects on social mobility for young people not in education, employment or training, known as Neets.
He said: 'For those cohorts that are just turning 16 or 17, they are going to be hit very hard by that… it's definitely going to have an adverse effect that tends to be very socially graded.'
Lee Elliott Major, research director at the Sutton Trust, told PF that: 'The overall balance of evidence suggests a levelling off of mobility.'
He said the trust welcomed early years policies, such as Sure Start, but they should be more concentrated. 'We think there should be more targeting. Sure Start and other schemes have been shown to mainly benefit the middle classes.'