+44 (0)20 7799 6677

Policy Briefing

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a major speech today in which he identified ‘promoting social mobility’ as ‘at the top of our social agenda’. Tony Blair made a similar commitment in 1997, just as John Major did in 1992. It is something modern leaders feel compelled to talk about. But Clegg brought a fresh take to it by emphasising the importance of parenting. Coupled with the Coalition’s initiatives on tax reform and early years intervention, this should help focus attention on the real social mobility problem – the self-reproducing, welfare-dependent underclass.


Like many politicians and commentators, Clegg thinks we have a serious social mobility problem in Britain: ‘It really, really gets to me that even though … we are a relatively affluent country, children are pretty well condemned by the circumstances of their birth.’ Unusually, though, he was prepared in his speech to identify poor parenting as part of the problem. Parents, he said, are ‘on the frontline’ and must interest their children in education.

He’s right. Unfortunately, though, he has appointed former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, as social mobility special adviser to the Government. And Milburn seems convinced the problem is institutional (in his letter accepting this latest appointment, he saw his task as ‘assessing the progress each set of institutions is making to [increasing] opportunities’).

A closed-shop society?

Milburn chaired a report on recruitment into the professions in 2009 (Unleashing Aspiration) in which he claimed: ‘Birth, not worth, has become more and more a determinant of people’s life chances.’ He even described Britain as a ‘closed-shop society’. He thinks institutions are blocking people.

Milburn will now report annually on how social mobility is being improved across the public sector, including the NHS and universities. This should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows anything about this issue, for it signals more destructive and ineffective social engineering could be on the way.

Opportunity is already extensive

Clegg is right to want every child to enjoy the opportunity to exploit their talents to the full. Nobody wants to see bright and hard-working people blocked through no fault of their own. As he said, ‘Fairness means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings. Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition.’

But what he may not understand is that, for most people living in Britain today, this is already the situation.

Britain is not a perfect meritocracy, of course. Like in every other country, children benefit if they are born to supportive parents who care about their education and make sacrifices to help their kids excel. And not everyone has parents like that. Nevertheless, the evidence from social mobility research is that, if you are bright and hard-working, and your parents have a job (no matter what it is), you will almost certainly succeed in modern Britain:

  • Dividing the population into three classes (professionals, managers and administrators at the top, manual workers at the bottom, and others in-between), more than half the population of Britain ends up in a different social class from the one they were born into.
  • Of children in the top quarter of the ability distribution, only 1 in 20 ends up in a semi- or unskilled working class job, while two-thirds get professional-type careers, irrespective of the class of their parents.
  • Movement is extensive, up and down these classes. More people born to working class parents are upwardly mobile by the time they reach 30 than stay in the working class. Downward mobility is also common: more than one-third of middle class children fail to stay there.

Given these figures, it is outrageous that Milburn last year described Britain as a ‘closed-shop society’ where birth counts more than worth.

Why middle class children out-perform working class children

It is true that children born into middle class homes tend (on average) to out-perform children born into working class homes. A child of manual worker parents is about three times less likely to achieve a professional/managerial position than a middle class child.

But it is a mistake to assume (as several recent government reports, including Milburn’s, have assumed) that this means there are unfair advantages or blockages at work. What this explanation neglects to consider is the distribution of talent.

When employers take on new employees, they try to recruit the most talented and able people. This creates a talent gradient across the occupational classes – people in the top jobs tend to be brighter on average than those at the bottom. These people usually find partners of a similar ability level (demographers call this ‘assortive mating’). And between them, they tend to have children whose ability to some extent reflects their own. The result is that, in each generation, a disproportionate number of middle class children is born with the high ability needed to get the best jobs. Hence that 3:1 ratio.

Nobody likes to talk about this – least of all, politicians. When they see middle class kids outperforming working class kids, they prefer to blame ‘unfair social conditions’. But the principal explanation is differences in average ability levels.

In research recently published by Civitas, half of the explained variance in the occupational destinations achieved by the 1958 birth cohort was due to just one variable – how well they scored on an IQ test when they were aged 11. This is a much better predictor of their eventual fate than the class they were born into, the type of school they attended, or any other social factor.

The fallacy of social engineering

Because politicians don’t like talking about ability differences, they keep trying to tweak educational and occupational selection procedures so more working class children will clear the assessment hurdles. They have been doing this for 50 years: abolishing grammar schools, scrapping streaming, turning Polytechnics into universities, expanding higher education places, dumbing down A-levels, attacking the private schools. Given the chance, Milburn will pursue more of the same (e.g. by penalising top universities if they do not take more entrants from lower social class backgrounds).

But none of these radical reforms has changed anything: ever since the war, middle class kids have been out-performing working class kids in that same ratio of around 3:1. All that more social engineering will achieve is a further diminution of educational standards.

Focus on the welfare underclass

There is one thing governments could and should be doing, though: intensively targeting children growing up in households where nobody has a job and parents are neglectful or absent. It is here, one suspects, that the real problem lies, and it is the one gleam of hope to be taken from Clegg’s speech. As he said: ‘Parents are in the frontline when it comes to creating a fairer society, in the way that they raise their children.’

It is often forgotten that research on social mobility excludes children in jobless households. When economists study income mobility, they exclude people with no earned income. When sociologists study occupational mobility, they exclude people with no occupation. The real social mobility problem is almost certainly concentrated in the welfare underclass of this country – but they are not being picked up in mobility statistics.

Instead of harassing Oxford and Cambridge to change their selection criteria, or fiddling with taxes and benefits to flatten the income distribution (something the 2009 Milburn Report was very keen on), politicians should devote their energies to improving parenting for young children growing up in welfare ghettoes. For everyone else, the opportunities are already there if they have the ability and motivation to take advantage of them. Milburn must be told there is no case for more social engineering.

Policy implications

There are three key policy implications that follow from all of this:

1. Help parents in workless households to assist their pre-school and older children.

2. Require people capable of work but currently on welfare to take a job.

3. Improve schools and provide supplementary schools so that they make up for unsupportive parents.

And one thing to avoid: don’t waste time on income redistribution or more quota-based social engineering. Not only are such initiatives ineffective, they are also counter-productive. When politicians repeatedly blame social conditions for outcomes, they breed fatalism by discouraging us from making the effort to overcome obstacles ourselves.

For more information contact:

Peter Saunders on: 07900 412420

Civitas on: 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent think tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party.

ii. Peter Saunders is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex and Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. For further information about the author

iii. To buy Social Mobility Myths by Peter Saunders, click here. A press summary of the report can be read here.


Keep up-to-date with all of our latest publications

Sign Up Here