Our education system is tilted against social mobility


We like to think that a modern society is open and mobile – and our failures on social mobility really matter to Theresa May. It is one of the reasons for successive waves of education reform, the latest of which is being debated in parliament today, sparking a fiery debate about grammar schools not seen for decades. What has gone wrong with social mobility and why?

Despite what’s often said, there has never been a golden age of high social mobility. John Goldthorpe at Nuffield argues that our record has never been much good once we allow for changes in the jobs market. The shift from the blue-collar jobs of the older generation to the white-collar jobs of their children did make it look as if we had cracked the problem in the 1950s or 1960s. But when these trends slowed down the underlying problem was revealed more starkly.

Education is often thought of as the solution to social mobility. But the uncomfortable truth is that despite education being so obviously a good thing its interaction with changes in the jobs market have not been good for social mobility. The decline of steady jobs in industry for school leavers and the expansion of higher education as the pre-eminent route to well-paid jobs has meant that the academic performance of your secondary school matters more than ever. The shocking gap in school standards may not have widened but it certainly makes more of a difference to your life chances once the school’s role becomes to provide a route to university. It is the urgent need to get your child into the schools that get them into the prestigious universities which has led to the parental arms race. This eventually feeds through into higher house prices around the primary schools that feed the secondary schools that feed the universities.

The expansion of universities also initially benefitted the middle class – notably daughters whose educational opportunities had lagged behind their brothers’. This expansion of their life chances is one of the great triumphs of the 20th Century. But when you add in the phenomenon of assortative mating – affluent well paid women marrying similarly educated men – then you get wider gaps between the earnings of different households and wider gaps in the levels of investment in children.

Then add to this mix the single most unusual feature of the English and Welsh schools system – that we expect sixteen year olds to take decisions about which subjects to specialise in. Again, this mattered less when most young people went off to work at sixteen, but now it matters much more. Take what that means for engineering, for example, which in many countries is a popular university subject. Only 7 per cent of young people in England and Wales take the A levels which make them eligible for most university engineering courses. Very few other countries have designed an education system which narrows down young people’s options so that by the age of sixteen 93 per cent could not become an engineer without a dramatic change of track. You might think that, given this educational approach, at least we would make exceptional efforts to provide careers advice and guidance, but actually this is one of our worst policy failures. A serious effort there would pay dividends for social mobility.

It is not all about A levels however – what about vocational qualifications? German apprenticeships are widely admired, but they are protected by over 300 licenses to practice which mean an apprentice is on a route to a guaranteed job. The British labour market has fewer such guarantees. We can enhance apprenticeships – but it becomes harder for colleges and employers to provide them. And of course you do need a job first. So apprenticeships of higher quality are hard to expand and A levels are becoming more academic and tougher. That leaves a real need for vocational qualifications that employers trust and are rigorous, as proposed in an important report by David Sainsbury in July. Successive governments have fiddled around with these to little effect. And spending on education for 16 to 18 year olds has been squeezed the most – caught between a school spending pledge which stops at age 16 and our university fees and loans which brought extra resources into higher education.

There are always going to be people who fall through the cracks first time round and need a second chance as adults. This is another area where we are not doing enough. In fact, a tightening of the rules on the environment for sitting GCSEs and A levels next year means there will be even higher practical barriers for adult learners who want to sit the exams – exactly the kind of area where the new government can make a difference.

We need a social mobility strategy which includes all the stages of education, throughout our lives. It has to include competitive pressures on schools to improve their performance – and not simply by selecting the kids who are going to do best. It means serious information, advice and guidance. It also means vocational qualifications for 18 year old school leavers which do not depend on employment first.

There are bright spots on the educational map – the most conspicuous in London. This has been achieved by putting schools under relentless pressure and not just allowing some to appear to do better by academic or social selection. Universities are reaching out too – places like King’s College London, where I am a visiting professor, realise that prior attainment is not the sole predictor of educational achievement. The good news is that university is the only stage of education where poor kids outperform their wealthier peers – if they can get in.

With the disappearance of big local manufacturing firms; no school-leaving exam at eighteen; no stable, reliable set of vocational qualifications outside apprenticeships; and poor quality careers advice, we are beginning to see why working class teenagers are having a tough time. It is unfair on them to say they lack aspiration – the evidence is that they have conventional aspirations for decent jobs but the unusual English education system has been tilted against them.

The article originally appeared in The Guardian.