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Education systems have little impact on social mobility


Current debate about the UK government’s proposed education reforms may be based on a false premise. Recent research suggests that education policy by itself contributes little to the rate at which people move between social classes, according to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Comprehensive schooling is neither less nor more effective at promoting social mobility than a selective system, says the research carried out by Dr Cristina Iannelli and Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh.

If changes to the structure of schooling could have an effect, then it should show in Scotland, where all selective schools in the public sector were abolished by the mid-1970s, they point out. Instead, they found that educational reforms had no impact either way.

While education may have provided the oil that lubricated upward mobility, the biggest effect has come through changes in the jobs people do, and how employment is structured.

The report says that though education has an intermediary role between where people start out and where they end up, its effect on social mobility has weakened. This suggests that middle class parents must be finding other ways to give their children an advantage in life.

Analysing data from major sources including the Scottish Household Survey, the researchers also found that while there remains a great deal of movement in social status - mostly upwards - that trend is slowing.

Dr Iannelli said: "Upward mobility has been common for at least five decades, and the parents of people born since the 1960s have themselves benefited from it to such an extent that there is less room for their children to move further up. "At the same time, there is also little evidence of any increase in people slipping down the social ladder."

By contrast, the report points to policies such as the Swedish kind of redistributive social democracy, or the social market of the type found in France and the Netherlands, as necessary for reducing inequalities of mobility.

They did, however, find some reduction in this inequality when people born in Scotland at the start of the 20th century were compared with those from after 1950.

The major difference between the sexes is that women are more likely to have lower non-manual jobs, while men tend to be in skilled-manual work. So women whose fathers were in manual employment are more likely to be in a non-manual job than men from similar backgrounds.

But Dr Iannelli said: "We found also gender differences within industrial sectors. Women’s main opportunity for upward mobility has been in services such as finance, health and education. However, women depend more on social background if they are to reach a professional position in something like banking or insurance."

Looking to the future, the study sets out two possible scenarios. One is that if educational expansion continues, inequalities will start to fall significantly, particularly if jobs go to people on merit.

Alternatively, as middle-class families seek to prevent their children falling down the social ladder, there might be political pressure to distinguish between the value of educational results at the top end - for example, through some universities charging higher fees than others, a policy which the Scottish Parliament has resisted.

Dr Iannelli said: "The best labour market rewards might then go to graduates from the highest status universities populated by the most middle-class students. In such circumstances, social inequality would at best remain unchanged, and could start to worsen for the first time in at least half a century."

Alexandra Saxon | EurekAlert!
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