Social Mobility11 June 2012
Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility in the professions is the first of three that will address “how free people are to improve their position in society”. There is an all-party consensus on the importance of social mobility, reflected in the appointment of a former Labour MP and Secretary of State for Health as Independent Reviewer by the Coalition government. But just beneath this benign agreement are divergent political positions with differing implications for public policy, including policies for education.
Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers offers a rather minimalist framework for social mobility. The focus, the report says, should be on intergenerational change and on relative social mobility. This means concentrating on “breaking the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next, allowing children to succeed whatever circumstances they are born into”. It also means putting in place policies and practices that result in improving people’s circumstances relative to others, rather than falling back on the argument that economic growth alone is sufficient: “for any given level of skill and ambition, regardless of an individual’s background, everyone should have an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket”.
Teasing this minimalist definition apart, though, exposes some of the fault lines that will define the politics of social mobility, particularly in the economics of a sustained recession, slow recovery and low levels of economic growth. A simple matrix makes the tensions obvious:
Firstly, there are two rather different understandings of what social mobility actually is. The Office for National Statistics uses seven primary categories, each of which is defined by a large set of job types. Somewhat confusingly, these are termed “socioeconomic categories”. But while occupation is a proxy for earnings, it’s by no means a precise proxy. It’s quite possible for someone classified by the ONS as SEC5 (“lower supervisory and technical occupations”) to earn a good deal more than a person from a household classified as SEC3 (“intermediate occupations”).
Alternatively, social mobility may be understood in terms of individual or household income, using either gross earnings or a proxy such as the eligibility of any children in a household to receive free school meals. It will be apparent that these differences matter quite a lot. For example, if one favours occupational mobility over income inequality, then creating and filling lots of low paid graduate jobs will meet requirements. But if reducing income inequality is the primary concern, then increasing wages in the ONS’s socioeconomic categories four to seven will be more effective; a strategy that may do little for intergenerational social mobility measured in terms of occupations.
Secondly, it makes a good deal of difference whether the emphasis is on the individual, or on the group. Again, these two positions are evidently connected. We know from numerous studies that the social and economic circumstances of a person – their group environment – has a profound influence on their life chances. At the same time, exceptional individuals beat the odds and are rightly celebrated. But a political position that is only about ensuring that exceptional individuals from poor backgrounds get into “top” universities shifts emphasis – and vital resources – away from the needs, and the unrealised potential, of the group as a whole.
Thinking of social mobility as a matrix of differing emphases is to highlight a range of rather different political positions nestling within the current all-party consensus. One could, for example, prioritise individual attainment of high-status professional positions. A passionate rebuttal of this position would be to argue for narrowing income inequality through a combination of higher rates of marginal taxation and a progressive increase in the minimum wage. Both positions could be claimed as advancing social mobility.
This situation is dangerous because of the unintended consequences of policy confusion. We have plenty of this right now. The “core and margin” policy, which is hitting us particularly hard, is intended to create a market among potential students, by forcing a wider spread of options, from low-priced places in Further Education Colleges to high-priced degrees in an elite group of “top” universities. But in reality, the combination of a graduate tax that is misnamed as a tuition fee with regulatory control of both the price of a university education and the number of places on offer has created a system about as far away as possible from a free market as it’s possible to get. This will contribute to a concept of social mobility that stresses individual attainment, but will be seriously damaging when social mobility is understood in terms of both income inequality and life chances at the group level.
The succinct definitions of social mobility used in Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers allow for the full range of interpretations. The key task for the future will be to be clear what is being measured and what it means, and to communicate this in way that makes the consequences of widely different political positions – and choices – apparent.
Background image: “Brindle Heath”, courtesy of Harold Riley.
Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility. Update on progress since April 2011. HM Government, Cabinet Office, May 2012. http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files_dpm/resources/opening-doors-breaking-barriers.pdf