Is education the key to social mobility?

We’ve all read the statistics: in the United Kingdom, 7% of the population who were educated in independent schools make up 95% of our politicians, judges, journalists and business bosses. And let’s not forget our actors and sports stars. You’re twenty times more likely to play cricket for England if your parents mortgaged themselves to send you to a private school.

But do we all want to be Yuppies? Not everyone wants to be a politician, judge or journalist, many are thankfully still in possession of their full set of faculties. Moreover, our average western society requires roughly 20% of its population to have endured of some form of higher education, e. g. brain surgeon, so where Blair conjured his 50% from is anyone’s guess. The remaining 80% of us need some particular skill set that actually keep the cogs whirring on a daily basis. They are the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers – the people who actually make something, build something, fix something.

Successful communities – Denmark and Holland, to name the usual suspects, pay significant attention to this lot of burgers – they educate them properly, pay them properly and make sure that whatever social strata they happen to inhabit, provides no reason whatsoever for them to want to mobilise themselves out of there. Instead of busting a gut to encourage social mobility at all costs, these communities set great store by what we might conveniently call social stability.

It’s always intriguing to see how the concept of social mobility attains a wildly disproportionate degree of importance in massively unequal societies – the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the world – ponder that when you next tuck into your succulent take-away.

And who said this? “Those who were born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England more than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible. The sheer scale… of private school dominance… points to a deep problem in our county, [One we have] failed to tackle with anything like the radicalism required. We live in a profoundly unequal society.” Someone should invite this man to become a member of the Liberal Democrat Party. Actually, it was Michael Gove. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that Gove’s actions are, on the whole, vanishingly distant from his utterances.

But is that the whole story? In less unequal societies – which is practically everyone else, the concept of social mobility is not often discussed, it just seems to happen all by itself, thanks in no small part to the fact that kids grow up in contented, well looked after communities where it’s not really important whether you end up staying put or moving on. What is vital, however, is that the choice is all yours. Whatever education you have opted for – bricklayer or barrister – has equipped you with a skill set that allows you to choose.

At next Saturday’s (14 July) Social Liberal Forum conference this topic will be taken for a spin by Simon Hughes, Helen Flynn, James Kempton and Duncan Exley, director of OneSociety in what promises to be a truly challenging session.

The theme for the day is “Social Justice Across Generations” – a subject ripe for some decent debate by social liberals, who seem to be too busy nowadays just fighting off regressive initiatives attempted by, well, by a variety of players, shall we say. Other sessions include “Reasserting the Liberal Democrats”, “Responding to the Coalition; New Political Movements” and “The Housing Generation Gap” – and we even get fed and watered – it doesn’t get much better. Get there early…

Kirsten de Keyser is a member of the Camden Liberal Democrat Executive Committee, the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.

* Kirsten de Keyser sits on the Camden Liberal Democrat Executive and is a member of Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine. She blogs here.

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  • Little Jacky Paper 6th Jul '12 - 8:56pm

    Well….Is this really about the devaluation of education or the devaluation of labour? It is a very good point to say that social mobility is not about people of a particular background making it to a high-profile role in public life. Not everyone wants that, and nor I suppose should they.

    I suppose I think to my parents. Both left school at 15 with barely a certificate between them. But they were able to walk out of school and walk into a secure local production line job with paid for training. Wages relative to everything else were such that my Dad could after a few years afford housing on a single production line wage, with interest rates in double figures. Try leaving school at 15 now and relying on labour and see how far you get.

    It is tempting to make this a ‘boomer generation’ issue. I make no such judgment here. But this notion of ‘social stability’ is (with respect) rather easy to say, less easy to implement. The production line my Dad worked on made HGVs. In 1960, it employed the best part of 7,000 (in a town with a population hovering around 70,000). By the time my Dad retired it employed an awful lot fewer but made more or less the same number of HGVs. I suspect that if we simply opened a load of production lines now they would be filled with machines making stuff, not waged labour. If we take as a condition of social stability the idea that work done by what you term, ‘the remaining 80%,’ is vital, then surely that work has to generate a living wage? At the moment, even people on far-from-poverty wages need benefit to put a roof over their head. The problem is not that the boomers have big houses, the problem is that no one else can now afford them.

    My Dad always told me that hard work is its own reward – problem is that really that is total cobblers. Hard work might be meritorious, but the reward is the secure house, the car in the drive, the family life and so on. When labour doesn’t give those things there is a problem. My Dad’s alternative to the procuction lines was the dole and the street corner. The production lines gave him the wage a family life and a house. What exactly does a school-leaver do now? I went to University because there was quite literally not much alternative. University per se is a red-herring here. Sadly, it has become the fashion on the talkboards to sneer at degrees. But those that sneer would be well advised to ask what is the motivation for many in going to university. Not, ‘why do you want to go,’ but, ‘do you think you have a viable alternative?’

    The real question is what happens in a society where returns accrue ever more to capital, not labour. The question is what will revalue labour. Falling house prices would be one, although that will never fly. How about a currency that appreciates, instead of houses?

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '12 - 9:15pm

    It is surely not just individuals who benefit from social mobility, it is society itself.

    If 95% of our politicians, judges, journalists and business bosses come from an independent school experience, then society is truly in trouble. People’s experience forms their views of society, and of what is right, wrong, and fair. Our most influential people obviously have a very limited experience of the society they influence. Not a good situation at all!

    How much better our society might be if our politicians, judges, journalists and business bosses came from wider backgrounds.

  • Little Jacky Paper 6th Jul '12 - 9:47pm

    Richard Dean – Can I suggest you look at it the other way. Society might benefit from social mobility, but it does not benefit when the mobility for everyone else is backwards.

    The term ‘alarm clock Britain’ was, to my mind, rather clumsy. But the sentiment behind it was probably a good one. That there are an awful lot of people out there who wake up and go to work and don’t do anything wrong. They are finding more and more that their labour is devalued. Wages buy less house, less pension, less familiy life, less food and so on.

    House price hyperinflation gave an awful lot of people a positive social mobility. But it was on the back not of labour but compounding assets – social mobility can hardly be seen in this instance as going hand in hand with social stability. I can’t remember who it was said that capitalism is great for those with capital, but s/he was right.

    I can say hooray for diverse institutions all I like, that is all they are – institutions. Institutions are not society at large. I am reluctant to endorse the supposition in the article that continental Europe is some social democratic land of milk and honey. There are some very rose tinted views of Europe doing the rounds at the moment. But to simply say, ‘society benefits from social mobility,’ is to rather gloss over the problems faced by those that don’t have that mobility or the assets.

  • “We’ve all read the statistics: in the United Kingdom, 7% of the population who were educated in independent schools make up 95% of our politicians, judges, journalists and business bosses. And let’s not forget our actors and sports stars. You’re twenty times more likely to play cricket for England if your parents mortgaged themselves to send you to a private school.”

    Thank God for comprehensive schools. Without them, there might still be grammer school educated people near the top of the tree.

  • Little JP says:
    “The problem is not that the boomers have big houses, the problem is that no one else can now afford them.”
    You are correct, and this is a symbol of our epitaph. Borrowing made sense, because the future (it seemed), would always be better and more wealthy than today. Now as a nation, we queue at the ATM, and draw out money that we do not have, and we QE ourselves into a future we hope (fingers crossed), will get better.
    But we have borrowed, not just into OUR future, but our children’s future, and that cannot continue. If we truly love our children we must stop this.

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '12 - 11:01pm

    I’ll bet there’s a plethora of academic studies that confirms that societies with high social mobility have happier – or perhaps at least wealthier- populations.

    Mobility has many benefits. Not just in industrial innovation, but in changing social attitudes in ways that make more people happier in theiir lives. A judge born into poverty might be a little more humane when sentencing chilren to long sentences for rioting, and a social service that draws its staff from poorer communities is a lot better at improving those communiies’ lots.

    Of course this kind of mobility is relative, so upwards mobility for some implies downwards mobility for others. Some people who might be judges in an immobile society might be labourers in an immobile one..

    Tough on lazy rich kids I guess!

  • Little Jacky Paper 6th Jul '12 - 11:04pm

    John Dunn – Actually I’m inclined to dispute that. I am sitting in a low spec 2 bed flat. According to the land registry in 1994 this flat sold for just under £50k. The one next door has just gone for a shade under £170k. And this is not in London. This does not make sense by any standard, even if one believes that 15% growth is on the horizon. This flat does not do 3.5x more than it did in 1994. What makes no sense is that my wife and I would rather take our chances with a commercial bank and 25 years of mortgage on a wildly overvalued property than take our chances in the current rental market.

    What we have done under successive governments is put a load of banks and asset inflation in the great big black hole where we should have had an economy. And if that needed more state direction and less competition with surplus capacity then so be it.

    In the protection of banks, inflated assets and the diminution of labour we have created a society not far away from socialism for the rich and free trade for everyone else. Indeed, if this conference in the article is really looking for a ‘boomer crime’ forget houses, take a look at the decline of building societies.

    As an indication of how society has gone, you could do worse than take a look at the decline in the number of young people who can afford to drive now. Not that long ago, my Dad treated car ownership as essential for work and familiy life, yet the young – the working young – are literally priced off the road whilst my Dad who owns two cars gets a bus pass. And no one seems to think that there might be an issue here. But again, the problem is not that my Dad owns two cars, it is that the working young can’t afford one.

  • Apologies Little JP.
    I think you have misunderstood me. It is not just about houses or house prices. And there is certainly no ‘boomer crime’. If there is a boomer problem, it was our naivety. We were seduced by the sugar rush of growth, and the belief that it could continue indefinitely. We assumed that today’s debt would be covered by future growth and wealth. (and that our children could assume the same). It was a good model while it lasted but it was wrong.
    In relation to driving costs you are correct, but it is only a matter of time before working class, and the lower middle class are priced off the road. And your dad if like my dad at 86, will soon be priced off the road by insurance costs, despite the fact that he is still a good and careful driver.

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '12 - 11:45pm

    It does seem true that “mobility” is often discussed in terms of a linear heirarchy – poor to rich, or powerless to powerful. But we can also think about society as a network, rather than a line.

    Mobility does not seem to me to conflict with stability. What is important first is that people have the opportunity to move, and of course that they have the free choice not to if they prefer.

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '12 - 11:53pm

    .., uneducated to educated ….

    But is this really how it is? There is also

    … unskilled to skilled …
    … relaxed to stressed-out ….
    … thoughtful to energetic …

    and a whole lot more

  • “You’re twenty times more likely to play cricket for England if your parents mortgaged themselves to send you to a private school.”

    Private schools have AIUI a long history of taking people on cricket scholarships so there is an element of cart/horse about this. Plus your substantially more likely to actually play cricket as a kid if you go to a private school.

  • David Evans 7th Jul '12 - 6:16pm


    “Thank God for comprehensive schools. Without them, there might still be grammer school educated people near the top of the tree.”

    Yeah. Those upstart grammar school kids.

    Thinking that they could get a good education for free and then get top jobs to dilute the pure bloods at the top of our society. Good job we abolished most of them before they got to be dangerous.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Jul '12 - 7:22pm

    Funny, how when people talk of social mobility, they seem to usually forget downward social mobility as well as upward.

  • patricia roche 7th Jul '12 - 9:26pm

    An interesting article. I have , however, just been to a depressing meeting. If you are over 24, then soon you will pay vast fe fees, then access to HE fees, then 9,000 plus living expenses for HE. What kind of social mobility will there be for people like me, who had 2 children, and was able to transform their life and mine, and all those students that I taught. I could, and do, cometimes weep for the loss. Pat

  • “Good job we abolished most of them before they got to be dangerous.”

    Well, no one seems to want bring the Grammer Schools back, so everyone important must be happy with the results of getting rid of them. Which would appear to include the collapse in social mobility that everyone pretends to care about.

  • Personally, I think the social mobility argument over education is really about a lack of willingness to tackle the loss industry and poor representation. Also in the media and political worlds there”s , for want of a better phrase, an “old boy network ” at play. We.ce lost the ability to question the value of the Establishment on all sorts of levels. It’s graduates employing graduates and perpetuating the suspicion of outsiders as the cultural norm. The questions shouldn’t be about the value of education as the best tool for social mobility, but why do we think we need a degree to read an auto que or why in a seat full of shop-workers, or whatever. do we think their interests are best represented by a class of professional politicians.
    And on the financial front, a lot of actual earnings are basically too low to live on in Britain.

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