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Is education policy a blunt instrument when it comes to ‘social mobility’?

Author: Matt Dickson

Is education policy a blunt instrument when it comes to ‘social mobility’?

Earlier this week, Tony Blair’s former speech-writer Philip Collins told a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats conference that social mobility was a ‘terrible objective’ and that in any case, education policy could do little to affect it.

“I can’t think of a single education reform in the 20th Century that had a marked impact on relative social mobility at all. Not one,” he remarked.

This conclusion depends on who you think it is important to be “relative” to. On the one hand you might think it is important to be compared to your own parents i.e. where you started, on the other hand you could think it is important to be compared to your peers – where you sit in the distribution compared to your peers from different backgrounds. Let’s think about the former comparison.

The 1972 raising of the minimum school leaving age (RoSLA) has been shown in numerous pieces of research to have increased the education, employment and earnings of the young people affected – relative to their school-mates in the years before the reform. Given that we know that the people who were made to remain in school an additional year were disproportionately from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this policy improved the economic position of young people at the lower end of the economic scale.

“The dull child of the middle class parent has to come down the wrung in order for me to go up, otherwise you don’t have social mobility,” is another problem that Collins identified with the objective of social mobility.

However, nobody had to come down the earnings or education ladder in order for the young people affected by RoSLA to move up – so this policy improved the chances that young people with low taste for education and/or lower ability and from poorer backgrounds, would gaining qualifications, employment and greater earnings. Technically this would be considered “absolute social mobility” and Collins is right in making the assertion that for there to be upward “relative social mobility” there needs to be an offsetting downward move of some.

But Collins is taking a very strong line here – arguably, what we should care about as a society is the extent to which people from all backgrounds can maximize their potential and not have their opportunities curtailed purely because of their parents’ education, income or class. This encapsulates what ‘social mobility’ is all about – and why it remains an important objective.

Moreover, it is an objective that is amenable to policy, as demonstrated by the impact of RoSLA and other education policies of the last fifty years. Another major structural reform in the post-war era was the abolition of selective education in most of the country. Despite on-going controversies, we know that the grammar school system was detrimental to the majority of children from poor households and its ending reduced a major source of income-based differentiation in life chances.

Furthermore, the expansion of higher education in recent decades has seen increases in young people from poorer backgrounds accessing university and the opportunities for progression that this affords. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the Nuffield Foundation last year showed that while higher education participation has been rising in general over time, it has been rising quickest for young people from the poorest families. This represents genuine ‘social mobility’, driven by a reduction in the educational inequality that separates children from better off and poorer backgrounds.

Taking a longer perspective, one hundred years ago most pupils left school aged 12, People “knew their place” in society and the education system offered very little means of escape for children from poorer families. While the labour market has also changed dramatically since those days, it seems very unlikely that education policy and the revolution in secondary education in particular has had no effect on the chances for poorer pupils of getting on in life.

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