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England More Socially Mobile Than Germany, France and Italy

The Government says Britain has a serious social mobility problem, but a new Civitas report shows this is wrong. The government’s social mobility strategy is based on a flawed understanding of the evidence. Social Mobility Delusions, by sociologist Peter Saunders, reviews the evidence on social mobility in Britain and finds:

Social mobility is the norm in Britain, not the exception, and it occurs in both directions across the entire range of the occupational class structure. (p.4)

Getting the evidence right

  • Britain is not a ‘closed shop’ society

The government’s ‘social mobility tsar’, Alan Milburn, calls Britain a ‘closed shop’ society. But almost one-third of men born to semi-skilled and unskilled worker parents end up in professional-managerial positions. If we divide the population into three main social classes, more than half of us are in a different class from the one we were born into.

Milburn also claims: ‘If you’re born poor you die poor.’ But four-fifths of children who grow up in poor homes escape poverty by the time they reach adulthood. Poverty is not a barrier to later success (but bad parenting may be).

  • Britain is far from bottom of the international league table

Studies of class mobility place Britain around the middle of the international rankings. The chances of moving into a different class from that of your parents are better in England than in Germany, France or Italy.

England ranked 8th out of 15 countries on a measure of ‘relative mobility’, with more fluidity than in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, but less than in Sweden, the USA, Japan and Australia. (p. 5)

The government prefers to use statistics on income mobility (comparing parents’ and children’s earnings). But even on this measure, it is impossible to say definitely whether Britain ranks above or below Sweden, the USA, Australia or France.

Measuring mobility by how far parents’ socio-economic status affects their children’s educational attainment, Britain ranks 9th out of 30 OECD countries.

  • Relative class mobility has not fallen

The government says children born in 1970 experienced less income mobility than those born 12 years earlier. But research using the British Household Panel Study finds no change in income mobility over this period, and all experts agree that rates of class mobility did not change. If anything, relative class mobility has been rising slightly since the 1950s.

  • ‘Rich thick kids’ do not overtake ‘poor clever children’

Much has been made of a graph which seems to show (in the words of Michael Gove) that ‘rich thick kids do better than poor clever children when they arrive at school, and the situation as they go through gets worse.’ But this graph is the result of what statisticians call ‘regression to the mean’ caused by statistical error in the earliest test. When the graph is re-run controlling for this problem, the ability scores of bright children from poor homes do not decline over time, and less intelligent children from more affluent homes do not overtake them. Politicians have been basing their policies on illusory evidence.

The report acknowledges that Britain is far from being perfectly meritocratic, where social background would be no factor at all, but it shows that personal characteristics like talent and hard work make the main difference in determining life chances:

Class origins do have some effect on academic and occupational outcomes, but it is quite small. Ability trumps class background. (p. 2)

Discouraging youth ambitions

Saunders argues that politicians’ misrepresentation of social mobility could itself be harmful. His concern is that when officials constantly represent Britain as a ‘closed shop’ society, young people from less advantaged backgrounds may overestimate the hurdles to success, and be discouraged from trying. This is in danger of compounding disadvantages that could, in fact, damage social mobility in the future:

These claims are deeply damaging, for they invariably get re-hashed and amplified in the media, helping to embed the myth of declining mobility firmly in the public consciousness.(p.13)

Train the toddler group before you blame the Russell Group

The Government wants to promote mobility by forcing changes to entrance requirements at top universities. Saunders argues this is a mistake. It won’t increase mobility, but it will dilute the quality of higher education. He says lower class youngsters are not being excluded from top universities (social class differences in university enrolments are entirely explained by gaps in applicants’ educational attainments). But he recognises that some children (those growing up in ‘underclass’ families) do not receive the parental support and nurturing needed to allow them to develop their potential and reach for the opportunities available to them:

Britain does have a major social problem which urgently needs addressing, but it is not a social mobility problem. It is an underclass problem. (p.24)

Early intervention, allowing children from otherwise unsupportive families to acquire skills from early childhood onwards, has the potential to improve the life chances of these children. This is where the biggest gains are likely to be found.

For more information contact:

Civitas 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Peter Saunders is a Civitas Professorial Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex. He has previously written Social Mobility Myths for Civitas. For further information about the author see:

ii. Social Mobility Delusions: Why so much of what politicians say about social mobility in Britain is wrong, misleading or unreliable by Peter Saunders can be downloaded below.

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.

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