‘Opportunity hoarders’ block social mobility for poor pupils

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Race to the top? Social mobility prospects for Britain’s young people are increasingly ‘bleak’, according to a new book (image: Adobe Stock)

The prospects for social mobility in Britain are “bleak” with the country’s poorest and richest likely to remain entrenched on their respective rungs of the income and social ladder for successive generations.

This is one of the conclusions in Social Mobility and its Enemies, a new book written by Professor Stephen Machin, director of the Centre for Economic Performance, and Dr Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

The authors have reviewed hundreds of research studies to show what they say is “overwhelming evidence” that confirms a causal link between inequality and social mobility levels.

The book warns that education is not the great social leveller that it should be and has been “commandeered” by the middle classes. Its authors are also calling for action to tackle exploitative employers and the “detached ruling elites”.

It says that in an era of falling real-terms wages, declining opportunities and stark inequalities in income, wealth and education, the dream of social mobility is “dying”.

This is because of a phenomenon that the authors identify as “opportunity hoarders” – the enemies of social mobility. These include privileged parents “stopping at nothing to prevent their children sliding down the social ladder”; exploitative employers failing to invest in their staff; and detached ruling elites, “vowing to work for the many, but pursuing policies for the few”.

The book highlights how 35 per cent of sons born in 1970 from the poorest homes remained in the poorest incomes as adults, while 41 per cent of those born into the richest homes stayed among the richest homes as adults.

This “stickiness” prevents social mobility, the book argues, and is mirrored in the extremes in inequality in wealth and education.

The authors describe how in 1980 a worker in the top 10 per cent was earning 2.75 times more than a worker in the bottom 10 per cent. By 2017 this difference was four times. People on the top-tenth rung of the wealth ladder are over 80 times wealthier than those on the bottom-tenth rung.

A bigger divide has emerged in the chances of becoming a home owner. “Generation rent” is just another manifestation of low social mobility in Britain, the book argues.

Furthermore, they warn that the education system has been “commandeered by the middle classes” to retain their advantage from one generation to the next. It highlights some key facts:

  • A quarter of adults in England do not have basic functional numeracy or literacy skills to get on in life. There are 10 million unskilled adults across Britain.
  • The high proportions of privately educated people in elite positions have stayed “remarkably constant for several decades across a range of professions”. The privately educated not only make up large proportions of today’s political and professional elites, but leading people in other areas of public life, including the film and TV industry, the arts, music and sport.
  • There is an increasing pay premium from studying at private school. In 1991, privately educated 33 and 34-year-olds were earning 25 per cent more than their state-educated counterparts. In 2004, the pay premium had increased to 41 per cent more.
  • The graduation rate from the poorest fifth of homes grew from 6 to 18 per cent between 1981 and 2013, while the rate from the richest fifth of homes grew from 20 to 55 per cent.

Prof Machin said: “Public policy debate has not focused enough on the obstacles to social mobility in the workplace. Jobs have emerged lacking security, progression, training and rights, many on low pay, with increased insecurity from short-term, temporary and even zero hour contracts. We need to find ways of encouraging employers to treat their employees as a long-term investment.”

Dr Elliot Major added: “We need a new model of social mobility – including an education system that nurtures all talents, vocational, creative as well as academic. We need also to explore more radical reforms including the use of lotteries for admissions to the best schools and universities. They are the only way to sweep away the unfair advantages of the middle classes.”

Social Mobility and Its Enemies was published by Penguin last week.

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