An Oxford University study says that despite a widely accepted view that social mobility sharply declined in Britain in the second half of the 20th century, this is not borne out by the data.
After an examination of the academic literature on social class and income, Dr John Goldthorpe from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention concludes that 'contrary to the widely accepted factoid... no decline in mobility, either absolute or relative, occurred in the late 20th century'. Although men's rates of upward mobility no longer increased as rapidly as before, women did become steadily more upwardly mobile. Relative mobility rates – capturing the inherent 'stickiness' between the class positions of parents and children – were much the same as for decades previously, he says.
His working paper, 'Understanding – and misunderstanding – social mobility in Britain', also suggests that educational policy is not likely to increase social mobility as much as politicians would have us believe. While politicians present educational policy as 'the crucial instrument for increasing mobility', what education alone can achieve in creating a more open society appears 'far more limited', he writes.
Dr Goldthorpe argues that absolute rates of social mobility are determined primarily by changes in the occupational and class structures. Insofar as policy is concerned, he says it will need to be aimed at shaping the pattern of future economic development, and will also depend on levels of investment in advanced technology and the public and social services infrastructure.
He also suggests that educational policy is limited in what it can do to make relative rates of social mobility more equal: better-off parents will still have the means to give their children better chances in life through using their resources in various ways to boost their educational attainment. The study adds that even children from advantaged backgrounds who don't achieve academically still have family resources and personal attributes that protect them from any serious downgrading in social class.
Dr Goldthorpe concludes that policies aimed at creating more equal opportunities for higher educational attainment, essentially 'levelling up', would be more effective if pursued for their own sake, thereby allowing all young people to realise their full academic and wider human potential with whatever economic effects follow. He argues that there is not enough evidence to show that educational policies created as instruments for increasing mobility are effective.
'If the creation of a more fluid and open society is a serious goal, then politicians will need to move out of the relative comfort zone of educational policy,' he says. 'They need to accept that measures will be required, of a kind sure to be strongly contested, that seek to reduce inequalities of condition of which those associated with social class would appear the most fundamental.'