Peter Saunders is professorial research fellow at Civitas

In a speech last Friday, Sir John Major joined a growing list of prominent politicians from all parties to express ‘shock’ and dismay about a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

The ‘problem’ is the absence of social mobility in Britain.  Like Nick Clegg, Michael Gove and Alan Milburn (Cameron’s ‘social mobility Czar’) before him, Sir John would have us believe that children born into lower social classes are being systematically denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

In his speech, he claimed that social mobility in Britain has “collapsed” (something he blamed on the last Labour government).  He said working class people (people from ‘his background’ as he put it) have been “abandoned” as a result of social mobility having been “lost,” and he suggested that an education system which “should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born”, is instead “locking them in.”  As a consequence, “every single sphere of influence” in Britain is now dominated by “the affluent middle class” or by people who were privately-educated.

It’s a grim picture.  But it’s not true.

t is true that privately-educated individuals are often over-represented in top positions in our society – not least in the current Cabinet where more than half the members went to independent schools.   It is also true that people from middle class backgrounds are more likely to make it into middle class careers than people from working class backgrounds (their chances are about three times greater).  But it is a mistake to conclude from any of this that social mobility has ‘collapsed’, still less that talented children from poorer backgrounds are being denied the chance to succeed.

In my 2012 Civitas report, Social Mobility Delusions, I review a wide range of studies demonstrating that social mobility in Britain is extensive.  If we divide the working population into three main social classes, more than half of us are in a different class from the one we were born into.  Almost one-third of men born to parents in routine jobs end up in professional-managerial positions, and a similar proportion of those born to professional-managerial parents are downwardly mobile.  Of children who grow up in poor households, 80 per cent escape poverty when they become adults.  Social mobility is the norm in Britain, not the exception.

It is often suggested that our social mobility rate is one of the lowest in the western world, but this isn’t true either.  Sociological studies of class mobility put Britain around the middle of the international rankings.  The chances of moving into a different class from than the one you were born into are a bit better in the UK than in Germany, France or Italy, but a bit worse than in Sweden, the USA and Australia.  These findings have been confirmed by the OECD, but you will rarely hear politicians or media commentators refer to them.

Instead, they prefer to cite research published by a group of UK economists working for the Sutton Trust who compare people’s incomes with those of their parents and conclude that Britain compares badly with other countries on this measure.   But international comparisons of ‘income persistence’ suffer from a paucity of good, comparable income data from different countries across different generations.  Even the Sutton Trust authors admit it is impossible to say with any confidence whether Britain ranks above or below countries like Sweden, the USA, Australia or France on this measure, and the OECD warns that ‘these comparisons can be invalid.’

What of Sir John’s claim that our education system is ‘locking’ children into their class backgrounds?   The OECD ranks Britain ninth out of 30 countries on the extent to which children’s educational attainment is independent of their parents’ socio-economic status.  When it comes to detaching children from the class they were born into, our education system, while certainly not perfect, does not seem to perform significantly worse than the systems in other rich countries.

Sir John’s belief that social mobility has ‘collapsed’ is also false.  Several different studies report that the probability of a working class child getting into the middle class, and of a middle class child ending up in the working class, has if anything risen slightly since the 1950s.  Nor is there any evidence from the British Household Panel Survey that income mobility has been getting any worse.  Politicians like Sir John keep making these emotional and hugely dispiriting and damaging claims about the collapse of opportunity while remaining blissfully unaware of relevant research findings.

In his speech, Sir John said he wants a society where children can “fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can take them.”  But he and others like him never ask how far social classes are already recruited this way. Sir John and his ilk assume from the fact that middle class children on average outperform working class children that this must be the result of unfair social advantages and disadvantages.  But to a large extent it reflects the distribution of ability.  My research shows that in Britain, cognitive ability is about three times stronger than class origins as a predictor of people’s eventual social class destinations.

What Sir John fails to understand is that, even in the meritocratic system he claims to favour, people born to more successful parents will still tend to do better.  This is because talented people filling top positions will tend to produce above-average ability children who will in turn compete successfully for these positions.

Politicians say they want ability to drive social outcomes, but they refuse to acknowledge that in a meritocratic society, average ability levels will come to differ between children born into different social classes.  No politician wants to think about this.  It’s much easier to express ‘shock’ and outrage about the apparent unfairness of ‘the system’ than to risk antagonising voters by telling them that the opportunities are already there, and that if their children fail to get to the top it may be because they just weren’t good enough.