UK social mobility fails to improve

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Social mobility in the UK remains far lower than in other advanced nations in spite of the government’s professed determination to tackle inequality, according to research from the London School of Economics.

The potential for children born in 2000 to move to a higher income bracket than their parents is still as low as it was for children born in 1970, the report said.

LSE researchers found that children’s life chances were still firmly linked to parental background. For example, children from affluent backgrounds who did badly in test scores when aged three tended to overtake poorer but more gifted children by the age of seven.

The report, undertaken for the Sutton Trust, an education charity, casts doubt on the effectiveness of government reforms to tackle class inequality. Earlier this year Alan Johnson, then education secretary, said Labour policies since 1997 meant poor children were likely to have “a much better chance to escape the limitations of their background”.

The research continued work by the same authors who ranked the UK alongside the US for low social mobility, while Canada, Germany and the Scandinavian nations were significantly more mobile.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Shamefully, Britain remains stuck at the bottom of the international league tables when it comes to social mobility.

“It is appalling that young people’s life chances are still so tied to the fortunes of their parents, and that this situation has not improved over the last three decades.”

The issue of social mobility is a central pillar of Gordon Brown’s plans for the country. In September he called for “a genuinely meritocratic Britain”.

Social mobility and rising aspirations have framed disparate lines of government policy, from increasing the age of mandatory education to building more affordable housing.

In his keynote address to the Labour party conference, the prime minister said it was unacceptable that there were “so many children destined to fail even before their life’s journey has begun”. He called for a Britain where there was “no longer any ceiling on where your talents and hard work can take you”.

The Conservatives have also embraced the issue – notably in abandoning support for selective grammar schools on the grounds that they do not improve social mobility.

Dr Jo Blanden, co-author of the LSE research, said there had been a steep fall in social mobility between 1958 and 1970, and although the class divide had not widened since then there was no evidence of improvement.

“You can either look at it and say the rot has stopped or that the government has been unsuccessful in policies to stamp out educational inequality. Either way, it’s not getting any better,” she said.

Among its main findings, the report highlighted inequalities among those gaining university degrees. While 44 per cent of young people from the wealthiest 20 per cent of households acquired a degree in 2002, just 10 per cent from the poorest fifth did so.

The report also found that, among children born in 2000, those from the poorest fifth of families in the brightest group for cognitive tests when aged three had, on average, attained worse results by the age of five.

In contrast, the test performance of those from the richest 20 per cent in the lowest achieving group had risen steeply by the age of five. By the age of seven, the wealthier group would have overtaken the poorer.

Though children born as recently as 2000 are still a long way from reaching the workforce, Dr Blanden said the education outcomes at different ages meant likely patterns of mobility could be predicted.

Sir Peter called for a “radical review” of the government’s approach to improving social mobility. He said ministers should set up “an independent commission to review the underlying causes for our low level of mobility and what can be done to address it”.

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