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Why does everybody lie about social mobility?
A sociologist explains the history of a much contested truth...
Written by Peter Saunders.
Before the Second World War, a child’s chance of succeeding in Britain’s educational system depended to a large extent on the size of their parents’ wallet. In those days, half of the places in state-aided grammar schools went to fee-paying students. Many bright children from poorer backgrounds got excluded because parents of less able children could afford to buy their way in. Not only did this raise obvious issues of fairness, but it also led to a growing concern that the country was squandering vast pools of potential working-class talent that it could ill afford to lose.
The answer, addressed in the 1944 Education Act, was to make all state-aided secondary schools, including grammar schools, free for all pupils. A new national examination – the ’11-plus’ – was introduced, and those scoring high-enough marks were selected for grammar schools, regardless of their parents’ means. From now on, children from different social class backgrounds would be given an equal opportunity to get to grammar schools. The only selection criterion was intellectual ability.
It didn’t take long, however, for critics to notice that children from middle-class homes were still out-competing those from working-class backgrounds in the 11-plus competition for grammar school places. The possibility that this might be because middle-class kids are on average brighter than working-class kids was ruled out from the start. One eminent sociologist dismissed such explanations as ‘social Darwinist and Smilesian’, and no social scientist or politician wants to be called names like that. The disparity of outcomes could therefore only be due to the failure of the 1944 reforms to eradicate unfair social advantages accruing to the children of the middle classes.
What form might these advantages be taking?
Some thought the problem was in the home. Middle class parents had books at home, read to their children at bedtime, attended school open evenings and transmitted higher aspirations to their offspring. But this sounded uncomfortably like blaming working-class parents for their children’s failure.
Others suspected the problem was in the schools. Middle class teachers were subconsciously discriminating against working class pupils by using an ‘elaborated linguistic code’ unfamiliar to kids from lower class environments who were therefore struggling to keep up. The curriculum, too, was said to reflect middle-class experiences, and working-class children found it difficult to relate to it (researchers reported that the grammar schools felt ‘alien’ to many working-class children). There was also a growing consensus in educational circles that the 11-Plus exam was ‘culture-biased’ and that its IQ test in particular was skewed in favour of middle-class candidates.
Drastic measures were called for. In 1965, the (privately-educated) Labour Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland, issued an instruction to all local education authorities to close down their grammar schools and replace them with ‘comprehensives’ which would be forbidden to select pupils by ability. Within a few years, all but 163 of nearly 1,300 grammar schools in the UK disappeared.
By scrapping selection at eleven, and teaching all children together in the same schools, the new ‘comprehensive system’ hoped to eradicate the middle-class advantages that the tripartite system had inadvertently reproduced. But very rapidly, the familiar pattern reappeared. Middle-class children clustered in disproportionate numbers in the higher streams of the comprehensive schools, and they continued to out-perform working-class children in post-16 examinations and university entry.
One response to this was to weaken or abolish streaming. Testing was pared back, classroom rankings were abolished to weaken competition, classroom seating plans were changed to encourage group learning, reading schemes were revised, teaching of formal grammar was all but abandoned (too ‘middle-class’), and more ‘progressive’ methods of teaching were introduced. Teacher training was overhauled to make teachers more aware of social class disadvantage, and teaching became an all-graduate profession. But despite all this upheaval, working class kids continued to ‘under-perform’ relative to those from middle class backgrounds.
Maybe the intake into the schools themselves wasn’t sufficiently mixed? Local authorities began to redraw their catchment area boundaries to force more mixing of social classes, and some abandoned the principle of parental choice altogether, allocating school places by ballot to force social class mixing. The minimum leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972 to force under-performing working-class children to stay in school longer, and when that didn’t make much difference to the attainment gap, the Blair government legislated in 2008 to force everyone to stay in education or training up until the age of 18. Yet still the social class imbalance in educational achievement persisted.
Educationalists began to suspect that the problem was rooted in the very early years of children’s development, before they ever started school. The Major and Blair governments responded with free child care and nursery school places for the under-fives, with a national network of Sure Start centres aimed mainly at poorer children. Yet the government’s Social Mobility Commission found none of this had achieved much impact on the performance of the poorest children.
Maybe the problem was in the tertiary sector? The universities, expanded in the sixties, and then again in 1992 when the former Polytechnics were upgraded, got a further boost when Tony Blair announced that half of all young people should go into higher education. There were just 200,000 students in Britain in the 1960s. Today there are 2.6 million. Many of them are from working-class homes.
There is, however, no point in herding half the population into higher education if you don’t give them a piece of paper at the end of it, so nearly everyone who completes a university course has to be allowed to graduate. The problem, though, is that as universities recruit further and further down the ability distribution, the proportion of students capable of getting a reasonable degree obviously falls. The solution to this was to drive down standards. Work that would have been awarded an upper (or even lower) second in the past today routinely gets a first.
This grade inflation has filtered down to the schools. How else could half a million youngsters every year get good enough A-level grades to be admitted to university? Up until the late 1980s, no more than 10 per cent of A-level candidates achieved A grades, but by 2010, this had risen to 27 per cent. So, they invented a new A* grade, which itself then began to inflate.
Employers soon got wise to this dilution of educational standards. With nearly half of all youngsters getting degrees, more demanding employers started recruiting only from the top universities. Politicians responded to this by putting pressure on the top universities to admit more lower-class applicants. A new ‘Office for Students’ demanded that Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities make lower offers to those from ‘less advantaged’ parts of the country. There have even been suggestions that admissions to our top universities could be determined by lottery.
Looking back over this sorry half-century history of educational reform and upheaval, we see that we have increased coercion (restricting school choice by parents, forcing kids to stay in education even if they don’t want to, limiting the autonomy of universities to select their own students), diluted standards (dumbing down GCSEs, A-levels and degrees), and undermined meritocracy (forcing universities and employers to favour applicants from certain kinds of backgrounds at the expense of others who may be better qualified). What we have conspicuously failed to do, however, is flatten social class differences in educational achievement. Middle class kids are still two or three times more likely to succeed in the education system and end up in high-level professional or managerial jobs than working class kids are.
Why has this pattern proved so resistant to change? The explanation has been right under our noses – but very few people in positions of authority are even today willing to acknowledge it.
Ever since 1944, the state education system has offered broad equality of opportunity to children from different social class backgrounds. But in any broadly meritocratic system, children born to successful parents will tend to out-compete those born to less successful parents. Not because of an unequal distribution of social advantages and disadvantages, but because of an unequal distribution of cognitive ability.
In an open competition where people are selected on the basis of intellectual ability, the brightest people will obviously end up in the highest positions, be they grammar schools, A-streams in comprehensive schools, or elite universities. If these successful men and women then mate with each other and produce children (as they tend to do), their kids will also be likely to score relatively highly on ability tests (though not necessarily as highly as their parents, for there is a ‘regression to the mean’ across generations). Like many other dimensions of human personality, cognitive ability is to a significant degree genetically determined. Some bright parents have dull children, and some dull parents have bright children, but on average, children of bright parents will score higher than children of dull ones.
So the reason middle-class parents tend to have more successful children is not because they transmit their class privileges to their kids, but because they transmit (some of) their ability. No amount of tinkering with comprehensive schools, de-streamed classrooms, pre-school head-start programmes, post-school university admissions systems, diluted examination standards, syllabus content, teacher training or anything else short of genetic engineering, is going to change this. For good or ill, what we have been seeing in the English state education system for the last three-quarters of a century is a broadly meritocratic system in action.
You don’t have to take my word for this. There’s a mountain of evidence to back up what I’m saying. I brought much of it together in my 2019 report for Civitas, Social Mobility Truths, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Civitas web site. All of the research discussed in this essay is fully referenced and explored there.
The problem, however, is that most people’s minds remain closed to what this evidence is telling us. Our political leaders in particular refuse to look at it:
‘We still live in a country where, invariably, if you’re born poor you die poor’ (statement by former Labour MP Alan Milburn on becoming Chairman of the government’s Social Mobility Commission);
‘In Britain today... patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next’ Nick Clegg, then Deputy Prime Minister);
‘Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor, and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege, in England than in any comparable country’ (Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary);
‘For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live or how much money their parents have’ (Theresa May, when she was Prime Minister, addressing school children in Derby);
‘It is still the case that the primary determinant of how well (or badly) you do in life is class, not your talent or effort’ (Jon Tricket, Labour’s social mobility spokesperson, in a 2017 Guardian article).
Every one of these claims (and there are many more like them) is complete nonsense. It’s just not true, for example, that ‘if you’re born poor you die poor’: research carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 81 per cent of children born to poor parents grow up to earn incomes above the poverty line. Nor is it the case that ‘patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next’: if we divide the population into three broad social classes, more than half of us end up in a different class from our parents (if we distinguish five classes, this proportion rises to 70 per cent) and this high level of fluidity shows no sign of reducing. Gove’s claim that fluidity is lower in Britain than in any comparable country is also completely wrong: there is a lot of research indicating that our rate of social mobility is around the average for advanced western countries, and claims that we are at the bottom of the pile are seriously methodologically flawed. As for the truly appalling claims by people like May and Trickett that your parents’ money counts for more than your talent in determining your success, these are the exact inverse of the truth: the impact of cognitive ability on educational and occupational outcomes is around three times stronger than the influence of class of origin. It’s not your parents’ social class that matters; it’s your ability.
For the best part of thirty years I’ve been trying to explain to governments, educationalists, journalists and other opinion-leaders that our system is to a large extent meritocratic, and that the social class gap in educational and occupational achievement is largely down to differences of ability rather than differences of opportunity. But I’ve got nowhere. Politicians don’t want to know. They feel much more comfortable telling people that the system is unfair than explaining to them that some kids are simply brighter than others, and maybe their kid isn’t one of them.
The continued peddling of these social mobility myths matters enormously. It’s not just that the myth of an unfair educational system creates an unending quest for an unattainable goal which results in each generation in the further destruction of elite educational institutions and degrading of educational qualifications in the hope of engineering a spurious equality of outcomes. It’s also that a message of hopelessness and fatalism is being peddled to young people from lower-class backgrounds, who are repeatedly being told that the dice are loaded, the odds are stacked against them, and (by implication) that there is very little chance of their succeeding in life. If you’re young, and you get told often enough that your chances of succeeding in life are slim, it’s no surprise if eventually you just give up trying.
When my father – a working-class boy from Croydon – left his Elementary School at the age of fourteen just before the Second World War, his form teacher wrote in his autograph book: ‘Aim high, for though you may not reach the sky, you will most certainly reach the mountain-tops.’ He was inspired by that for the rest of his life.
Compare that message of hope and aspiration to what politicians today repeatedly tell our youngsters, and weep.
Peter Saunders is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex, a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, and a Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. He is an author of many fascinating publications and one of the few sensible sociologists in Britain.