Weekly Economic Briefing

A family affair

20 June 2017


Social mobility creates a good deal of angst in UK politics. In 2011, the ‘social mobility tsar’ Alan Milburn said “sadly, we still live in a country where, invariably, if you’re born poor, you die poor”. The UK does score badly when we look at measures of relative social mobility across countries. Relative social mobility measures how a child’s earnings, or educational attainment, are influenced by that of his or her parent’s socialeconomic status. One cross-country study finds that around half of the economic advantage that high-earning fathers have over low-earning fathers is transmitted to their sons. This suggests very low levels of mobility. The UK also scores relatively poorly for mobility measures in education. OECD analysis finds that the UK is among the countries where socioeconomic background appears to have the largest influence on a student’s performance (see Chart 4). Interestingly, there are clear regional divergences in the degree of mobility across the country. The government’s social mobility index finds that the educational attainment and employment prospects for disadvantaged young people are better in London and the commuter belt. However, the report warns that coastal areas and industrial towns are becoming mobility cold spots. This adds another interesting layer to the UK’s mobility challenges.

Social immobility
Getting harder to move up

Policymakers are also likely concerned with the slower progress in absolute social mobility – the share of children who go on to do better than their parents’ generation. In the post-war decades, a combination of strong per capita growth and a shift in the occupational structure away from manual employment helped deliver widespread improvements in living standards relative to the previous generation. However, the structural shift in the post-war economy which led to a significant rise in the middle class cannot be repeated. Moreover, potential growth rates have clearly slowed over a number of years. These forces help explain why progress in terms of absolute mobility has become more muted.

It is perhaps not a surprise to see that mobility is a major concern (see Chart 5) and the Conservative Party’s manifesto devoted a full chapter to its desire to turn the UK into the “World’s Greatest Meritocracy”. The new government will certainly have its work cut out. The detail on how it will deliver this goal is limited, although there is a clear focus on improving education. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found that intervention in early education, a focus on literacy/numeracy, recruiting and training high-quality teachers, and greater support around the choice of GCSEs/A-levels can all be effective policies in helping improve educational attainment among the most disadvantaged young people. One policy which does not receive the IFS’s seal of approval from a mobility standpoint is the intention to lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools. Grammar schools have been controversial in the UK. There is very strong evidence that attending one of these institutions is good for those who get in, but bad for those who don’t. In particular, those who live in selective school areas but don’t go to grammar school do worse than would have been expected under a comprehensive system. This illustrates how difficult it can be to foster social mobility and the potential unintended consequences of policies aimed at addressing these challenges.

James McCann, Senior Global Economist


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