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The truth about social mobility in Britain today

False claims about social mobility risk demotivating youngsters from poorer backgrounds and are leading to damaging policies to rectify problems that do not exist, a new Civitas report shows today.

In ‘Social Mobility Truths’, sociologist Peter Saunders debunks claims that the UK’s social mobility rate is very low, that very few children from working class backgrounds succeed in landing good jobs, and that progress has gone into reverse in recent decades.

He demonstrates instead how movement up and down the social class ladder is widespread, and that the main influences on where people end up in life are talent and hard work – not the class they were born into.

Among 24 ‘truths’ about social mobility, he documents how:

  • Social mobility is the norm, not the exception. It is more unusual today for somebody to remain in the social class they were born into than to move out of it, either up or down. Some 65 per cent of people to working class parents have moved up in social class, while 40 per cent of those born to professional-managerial parents have moved down.
  • Social mobility has not been in decline. There is less movement into the middle class now than there was in the second half of the twentieth century but that is because there was a rapid expansion of the white-collar middle-class jobs during that period. In fact, fluidity between social classes increased between the 1980s and 1990s and then remained at this level during the first decade of this century.
  • Britain’s social mobility rate is no worse than the European average and better than that of many other advanced nations. The OECD ranks the UK ninth out of 30 countries on the extent to which children’s educational attainment is independent of their parents’ socio-economic status and in the middle of the rankings the probability of a child attending university if their parents didn’t. A recent survey of thirty European countries found the UK to be one of a cluster with the highest absolute mobility, and one of the most fluid in terms of relative mobility.
  • Class background is only a small part of the explanation for why some individuals achieve a higher occupational grade than others. Once qualifications, cognitive ability and motivation are taken into account, class origins and good parenting are relatively small influences on class destination.

Peter Saunders, emeritus professor of sociology at Sussex University, said:

‘The failure of our politicians to grasp the truth about social mobility is resulting in damaging policies designed to rectify problems we do not have. Our top universities are not biased against working class applicants, for example; nor do they unfairly favour those educated at private schools. Imposition of targets and quotas is undermining what is currently a meritocratic system.

‘The repeated false claims of politicians threaten to demotivate youngsters by convincing them the opportunities are all closed off, when in fact, for those who are bright and motivated, there is little to hold them back. This is the message our political leaders should be sharing with young people.

‘When we start to dig into the evidence on social mobility, it becomes clear that Britain is a lot more meritocratic than our political leaders seem to think it is. “Background and birth” are not the key factors shaping our lives; “aspiration and ability” are already the principal determinants of educational and occupational success.’

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