More of us are falling down the social ladder
More of us are falling down the social ladder

Decades of educational expansion 'had little effect on social mobility'

In the inaugural British Academy sociology lecture on 15 March, Oxford sociologist Dr John Goldthorpe will outline why having more educational qualifications than your parents and grandparents has not translated into better social mobility chances for those from less well-off families.

He will show that more advantaged families now use their economic, cultural, and social edge to ensure their children stay at the top of the social class ladder. The findings show that what matters is not how much education someone has, but how they compare with others competing for the same jobs. For example, in 1972, half of those men found in managerial positions in the UK had no formal academic qualifications at all.

Dr Goldthorpe will say that 'parents and children are more concerned with avoiding downward mobility than they are with achieving upward mobility. And the resources of those families with most to lose through downward mobility will, in the nature of the case, tend to be greater than the resources of families with the most to gain through upward mobility'.

The lecture is based on findings of a new research programme led by Professor Erzsébet Bukodi of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at Oxford University. Researchers analysed social origins, education, and work histories and destinations of around 30,000 men and women in the British birth cohort studies of 1946, 1958 and 1970; and a further cohort of men and women born in Britain between 1980 and 1984 constructed from data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study.

Dr Goldthorpe will show that when educational qualifications are taken at face value, inequalities in educational attainment among children from different class backgrounds have narrowed – although this improvement is still mainly at lower educational levels. However, when education is considered in relative terms, its effects on individuals’ chances of social mobility or immobility have changed little: these chances remain highly unequal. The only exception is  women who have worked part-time, where some weakening in the association between their class origins and destinations is found, mainly it seems because of a growing number of women of more advantaged class origins who choose to give priority to family life over their own careers.

To look to the educational system itself to provide a solution to the problem of inequality of opportunity is to impose an undue burden on it. Rather, a whole range of economic and social policies is needed.

Dr John Goldthorpe

'What can be achieved through educational policy alone is limited – far more so than politicians find it convenient to suppose,' he argues. 'To look to the educational system itself to provide a solution to the problem of inequality of opportunity is to impose an undue burden on it. Rather, a whole range of economic and social policies is needed.'

Dr Goldthorpe will also outline research showing that people born in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s have been less often upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents, while an increasing number of men and women have started to drop down the social ladder. He attributes the upward mobility from the 1950s to the 1970s to a major expansion of professional and managerial positions in that period, and dubs it the Golden Age of social mobility. He will explain that because more individuals are now starting out in life from more advantaged class positions, more are at risk of moving down the social ladder. To offset this and to bring about more upward mobility, changes in the class structure are required that would produce 'more room at the top'.

'What in this case is called for are policies that can lead to a further upgrading of the class structure. That is, policies not just for economic growth but for economic and social development that can help create more "top-end" jobs. For example, policies aimed at improving our presently very poor levels of investment in research and development…policies aimed at creating a modernised and environmentally friendly infrastructure; and policies requiring the progressive raising of the quality of all social and other public services.' 

'Perhaps policy-makers committed to the idea of "greater opportunity for all" would do well to focus their efforts on reducing social inequalities of condition and on creating a rising demand in the national economy for able and highly-qualified managerial and professional personnel – and then leave social mobility to look after itself,' he concludes.

The lecture is called Social class mobility in modern Britain: Changing structure, constant process.