The myth about social mobility in Britain: it’s not that bad, says new report

You’ll do better than me son. Mother and child, via Lakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

It is generally accepted by all political parties and most of the media that social mobility in the UK is low compared to other countries, and worsening over time. These “facts” appeared in the manifestos of all three major parties at the last election. This has led to the creation of a mobility tsar and the expenditure of billions of pounds of public funding.

So how is it possible that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in a report out today, reports very high upward inter-generational educational mobility in the UK and a very strong link between education and subsequent earnings?

Education at a Glance suggests that more of the adult population of the UK, aged 25 to 64, is educated to higher education (university graduate) level than in any other EU country. This rose from 25.68% of adults in 2000 to 40.98% in 2012. And the earnings difference between having an upper secondary qualification and a degree (or equivalent) is high: a person with a degree in the UK will earn 55% more.

Education appears to matter. In every generation, a sizable proportion achieve a qualification higher than that of their parents, as the graph below shows. But as the qualification level of the population grows, the proportion “outperforming” their parents decreases – and would eventually cease if everyone achieved a university-level qualification.

Better educated than your parents. OECD

The UK also has one of the lowest links in the EU between an individual’s background (as assessed by economic, social and cultural status) and attainment in the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This measure of equity is better than in Denmark, for example, and almost twice as good as in Hungary and France.

Resolving the apparent contradiction

The OECD figures have a mixture of survey sources, and do not always present response rates and the reasons for missing country data. So there will be some inaccuracy in their figures, which they acknowledge. But a much more likely reason for these two vastly different accounts is that the research report on which so many politicians and other commentators have based their views of social mobility makes some crucial mistakes.

The report that started all of the trouble was published in 2005 by the Sutton Trust. It used the 1958 and 1970 GB birth cohort studies to suggest that inter-generational income mobility for those born in 1970 was worse than for those born in 1958.

And it also claimed that mobility was worse in Britain than in similarly developed countries like Norway. It justifed this claim by comparing the data for Norway in 1958 with that for Britain in 1970. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for this. If you use instead the 1958 data for Britain – which makes sense not only because it is closer in time to Norway’s 1958 data, but also because the parental income measures are more similar – social mobilty is about the same as in Norway and all other comparator countries.

The same data looked at sensibly seems to show considerable income mobility between generations. Around 17% of those born to the poorest 25% of families in Britain go on to become among the richest 25% in one generation. As the new OECD study suggests, some of this may be due to the high educational mobility of the UK.

The opportunity cost

Considerable effort and funding is therefore being put into a solution to a problem that does not appear to exist – perhaps because good news in not so popular as bad. But there is a real opportunity cost. Real problems for the most educationally disadvantaged in the UK, such as adults without prior qualifications and low levels of literacy, are being ignored.

Hopefully this new OECD picture will provide some commentators with the courage to look again at social mobility, and begin to distinguish between those elements of our education that should be treasured and those that need urgent attention.