‘Of Course We Do’: Inequality, the Family, and the Spell of Social Mobility

By Calder, Gideon | Soundings, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

‘Of Course We Do’: Inequality, the Family, and the Spell of Social Mobility


Calder, Gideon, Soundings


A striking feature of the recent rekindling of debates about grammar schools is how readily the priority of social mobility is pushed, across the political spectrum. Left and right will disagree about whether grammar schools promote it, but the notion itself seems scarcely up for dispute. This raises a number of questions. If people from different political directions are so united in their keenness to achieve it, why has social mobility been stagnating for decades? Why do the life chances of rich and poor still differ in such stark respects? Part of the answer, I'll suggest in this article, lies in a widely shared set of 'common sense' beliefs about the family that severely limit the political scope for achieving anything like fairness for generations of children born into a society with stark class divisions. We talk a lot about social mobility while at the same time avoiding some of the uncomfortable places to which we would need to travel in any genuine attempt to realise it.

Everyone loves social mobility...

Theresa May, for one, is a fan of social mobility. Or, as she put it on 31 August 2016, she wants a Britain where, when it comes to where you end up in life, 'it's the talent that you have and how hard you're prepared to work that determines how you get on, rather than your background'.1 In a way, this counts as news: it tells us something about how the incoming prime minister wants to stake out her defining aims. And it's a reminder of the seemingly compulsory move among incoming Conservative leaders to go all 'classless society' on us, and to sound more inclusive than they'd previously let on. Yet, as pitches go, it's hardly novel. Similar notes have been struck so often by post-war UK governments that what is really arresting is the fact that it still seems vital to strike them. It's rather a giveaway. Whatever social mobility is, we clearly haven't been achieving it.

John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron - all, as prime ministers, sought to define themselves as breakers of sedimented unearned privilege. Cameron went as far as setting up the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired since its 2012 inception by former Labour Health Secretary Alan Milburn. (Recently, with the reframing and downgrading of child poverty as a priority, it was renamed simply as the Social Mobility Commission.) Yet perhaps Gordon Brown went furthest in his fervency, in words at least. In 2010, he wrote that 'social mobility is not an alternative to social justice - it is modern social justice'.2 So that's it. The single requirement for a just society is that people end up in different circumstances from those in which they're born. Social mobility, all by itself, will deliver it. Nothing further is necessary, by way of radical shifts in the economic and social structures of society - or rather, if social mobility is achieved, it will be as a result of those structures already being arranged aright. This claim has a beautiful simplicity about it. But that might be part of the problem. To see social mobility as the only indicator we need poses grave hurdles for the tackling of social injustice.3

... perhaps all the more because we've been losing it

That's not, for a moment, to deny that there is a problem. It is not that social immobility, or inter-generational inequality - or what John Goldthorpe, doyen of social mobility analysis, has called 'class fate' - isn't itself an urgent thing to tackle. In contemporary Britain, in dismally familiar ways, background seems to matter as much as ever. In terms of state school achievements, the initially highest attaining among the most disadvantaged children are, on average, overtaken by the moderately attaining most advantaged children somewhere between the ages of five and sixteen.4 In other words, though they start out achieving higher grades, the 'smart' poor kids are overtaken by the 'average' rich kids by the time they do their GCSEs. They are then eight times less likely to attend an elite university than their privileged peers. …

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