The expert in social mobility who says education cannot make it happen

‘I want to see social mobility rising once again,” said prime minister Tony Blair in 2004. “We can unleash the biggest wave of social mobility since the second world war,” said prime minister Gordon Brown in 2010. “I want to see a more socially mobile Britain,” said David Cameron in 2013. “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy,” said Theresa May in 2016.

The politicians’ message has been consistent. But so too has been the message from Britain’s leading sociologist, John Goldthorpe, emeritus professor at Oxford University. The politicians have it all wrong. Social mobility did not, as they assume, rise after the second world war. Nor, as they also assume, did it decline from the 1970s. And crucially, education, which they believe to be the engine of social mobility, has played no such role and, without reforms far more radical than any yet contemplated, can never do so. Britain is as far away from meritocracy as ever.

It’s not schools and universities, but differences in home environments, and particularly the time parents can give their children, that are the obstacles to equality of opportunity, Goldsmith argues. “People find that very hard to accept,” he tells me at Nuffield College, Oxford’s main centre for social science since 1937. “Family is a good thing. Equality of opportunity is a good thing.” But we can’t eradicate all the ways in which families give their children advantages. “Would we want to stop parents from reading bedtime stories or engaging in supper table debates? Of course not.”

Goldthorpe has studied class and social mobility for more than half a century, using studies that followed thousands of Britons from birth through their school and working lives. He invented the seven social classes – from higher managers and professionals at the top to “routine occupations” at the bottom – now used in official statistics.

A grammar school boy who read history at University College London and did a PhD in sociology on a miners’ welfare scholarship, he was born and bred in an isolated Yorkshire mining village where his father was a colliery clerk and his mother a dressmaker. Both had left school at 14. Goldthorpe’s life is a model of the upward social mobility that thousands from backgrounds like his experienced from the 1940s.

So why does he insist that conventional wisdom about social mobility and education’s role in it is wrong? In a recent book, Social Mobility and Education in Britain, written jointly with Erzsébet Bukodi, a Nuffield colleague, he distinguishes between absolute and relative mobility. Absolute mobility is your chance of ending up in a different social class from the one you were born into. That is around 80% and has been remarkably consistent for at least a century; if anything, Britain has slightly more mobility than other European countries. But the movement is often small: from class 2 to 1, say, or from class 5 to 6.

Relative mobility is different. That is your chance, if you started in, say, class 6 or 7, of making it to, say, class 1 or 2 compared with those who started at the top. Here, if you start at the bottom, you are many times less likely to make it to the top than somebody born there. That remains as true as ever, say Bukodi and Goldthorpe. Neither grammar schools nor comprehensives made any difference either way.

What has changed, however, is the availability of top jobs. In the 1950s and 1960s – Goldthorpe calls it “the golden age” – professional and managerial jobs more than doubled as a proportion of the UK labour market. That spurred a dramatic growth in upward mobility, which far exceeded downward mobility. There was, to borrow the title of a 1950s novel, “room at the top”. Now the growth in top jobs has slowed. Social mobility hasn’t disappeared, but for those born since the early 1980s, it is at least as likely to be down as up.

“It was a positive-sum game when you could have increasing numbers moving up without anybody moving down,” Goldthorpe tells me. “Now it’s a zero-sum game. Nobody can move up without others moving down to make way.” When he tried to explain this to Blair in 2001, an aide interrupted: “But Tony can’t possibly go the country on a platform of increasing downward mobility!” As Goldthorpe observes, “Downward mobility is a taboo subject in politics.”

“Loss aversion”, as psychologists call it, dictates that those who now occupy managerial and professional positions will do all they can to protect their children from falling down the social ladder. They will pay for the best pre-school provision, buy houses in areas with high-performing state schools, hire private tutors, and arrange educationally enriching experiences. In the most extreme examples, women, whose social mobility patterns are now otherwise similar to men’s, move into low-grade part-time work to maximise their availability to their children.

“That’s the phenomenon of the tiger mother,” says Goldthorpe. “She is highly educated and could be competing for high-end jobs but deliberately chooses not to.” But, he adds, her partner is usually a well-paid professional or manager. “My daughter who has a PhD in virology works as a part-time science writer. She is married to the head of a top German technology transfer company.”

Even if children from the top social classes fail at school, they often fall on their feet. The majority of men with the double handicaps of low qualifications and socially disadvantaged backgrounds end up in the working class and only 16% become professionals. But of similarly qualified men from the most advantaged homes, only a fifth sink to the working class and nearly half stay in the managerial and professional class.

How do they manage that? “Some get jobs in a parent’s business. Others in the service sector, selling to people from similar social backgrounds: high-grade travel firms, marque car dealers, high-grade hotels and restaurants, fashion shops.” Typically, they are versions of Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim.

Can education be made more effective in countering the advantages of the already advantaged? “I would support lotteries for allocating secondary school places,” he says. “And to even things up, you could give disadvantaged parents vouchers to buy private tuition for their children.”

Abolishing private schools, he says, wouldn’t make much difference, except at elite levels of the civil service, the judiciary and so on, because it involves such a small proportion of children.

But before meddling further with education, Goldthorpe argues, governments should develop an industrial strategy that creates more good management jobs and also upgrade welfare services such as old people’s care which, instead of providing mostly unskilled and low-paid jobs, could be turned into a profession. We need to get back to the golden age, he and Bukodi argue, when jobs that offered a secure, regular income and prospects of career progression steadily increased. Instead, we’ve moved in the opposite direction to the insecure, dead-end work of the gig economy.

“I’m not against education,” says Goldthorpe. “More people than ever have a chance to realise their academic potential. We’re a better educated nation now. And that’s what I think education ought to be about, rather than an instrument to achieve social mobility, which is taking it out of its proper sphere.”

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