Peter Saunders is a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex (where he is still Professor Emeritus), and a Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas. He is the author of Social Mobility Truths. More details at his website.
When an idea takes hold in politics, it can be extraordinarily difficult to shake it.
For 20 years, politicians of all parties have been convincing themselves that social mobility rates in Britain are extremely low, that we compare badly with other advanced western countries, that few children from working class backgrounds get good jobs, that the professions and our top universities are largely closed to people from humble origins, and that opportunities for bright working-class children are even worse today than they were in the past.
None of this is true, but these claims have been repeated so many times that nobody seems willing to question them. We are locked into what Professor John Goldthorpe calls a ‘spiral of hyperbole.’
In 2019, Civitas published my book, Social Mobility Truths. What follows is a summary of some of the evidence reviewed there (for more detail and full sources, refer to the book).
First, social mobility in Britain is widespread. The government’s own Social Mobility Commission accepts that 65 per cent of people born to working-class (routine and semi-routine worker) parents are upwardly mobile (more than one-third end up in professional-managerial positions). Just as important, 40 per cent of those with professional-managerial parents fail to retain this status. Changing your social class is more common than staying put.
Secondly, the huge twentieth-century expansion in the size of the middle class is coming to an end. Upward mobility is therefore becoming less common than it used to be (while downward mobility is becoming more common). But this is only because so many of us today are already in the middle class. It does not mean there are fewer opportunities for youngsters than there used to be. There are as many ‘good jobs’ as ever.
Thirdly, Britain’s social mobility rate is around the European average. The claim that we are international laggards originated with economists working for the Sutton Trust who looked across countries at how far parents’ incomes predict their children’s incomes. But statisticians at London’s Institute of Education have shown these income estimates are wrong and systematically biased, and the OECD has warned about problems comparing income data from different countries. A 2019 review by Bukodi and Goldthorpe concludes: ‘There is no evidence whatever of the UK…being a low mobility society’.
Fourthly, it is true that middle class children are twice as likely to get middle class jobs than working class children are. But we should not assume that this is due to class privileges and blockages. Even in a perfect meritocracy (where occupational positions were allocated purely on the basis of talent and hard work) there would be a strong association between parents’ and children’s achievements, because talent is to a considerable extent passed on in the DNA children inherit.
There is huge political resistance to accepting this, yet we know that cognitive ability, measured by IQ testing, is at least 50 per cent heritable. Recent research also shows that propensity to work hard (measured, for example, by conscientiousness scores on psychometric tests) is quite highly heritable too.
Fifth, unequal educational achievement by children from different social class backgrounds is largely (though not entirely) explained by differences in average ability levels between them. Analyse all the factors that might affect children’s educational performance, and you’ll find that IQ test scores are far stronger predictors than all the social and environmental factors (parental class, parent’s education, parents’ income, parental encouragement, parental interest, enrolment in a private school, etc.) put together. On average, cognitive ability is higher among middle class children than working class children, and that is the main reason they tend to do better in school.
Sixth, top universities do not discriminate against lower-class applicants. Quite the opposite: youngsters from poor backgrounds who get to university generally have lower GCSE and A-level scores than other successful candidates. Nor are top universities biased in favour of private school entrants. The reason privately-educated kids get into Oxbridge in disproportionate numbers is that they are, on average, brighter. This shouldn’t really surprise anybody (after all, these kids generally have very successful parents). Yet this is a truth which seemingly must never be acknowledged.
Seventh, like educational achievement, occupational achievement is also driven primarily by innate ability. My own analysis of the social class destinations of eleven thousand UK children born in 1958 showed that (controlling for all other variables) their IQ scores at age 11 were by far the best predictor of where they would end up. This one factor accounted for half of all the explained variance in outcomes.
Social advantages and disadvantages do play some part in shaping people’s lives. Some children enjoy an ‘inside track’ when it comes to careers (children of doctors, for example, are more likely to enter the medical profession). Some grow up in neglectful or abusive homes which undoubtedly blight their lives. Britain is not a perfect meritocracy. But it is broadly meritocratic, for ability and motivation are the key drivers of success in our society.
The extraordinary thing is, though, that when commentators try to explain the educational and occupational achievements of children from different class backgrounds, they almost always ignore ability differentials completely. There is a wilful refusal to look at the evidence, and there is a lot of bad faith around.
Politicians are complicit in this, for it is much easier to tell voters that the system is rotten and that you know how to fix it, rather than acknowledge that the system is remarkably open, and the reason their child has failed to secure a top job is because he or she simply isn’t bright enough, or didn’t work hard enough. Hence the familiar political rhetoric: we live in an ‘elitist’ and ‘closed shop’ society; talented working-class kids are unfairly ‘blocked’; universities and employers are ‘biased’ in their selection procedures.
This relentlessly depressing and pessimistic stream of ill-informed propaganda is having two disastrous effects. First, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re young, and you get told often enough by the leaders of your country that your chances of succeeding in life are slim, you’ll eventually give up trying. And secondly, it results in an unending stream of government initiatives which achieve little yet which perversely end up undermining meritocracy with quotas and targets, rather than enhancing it.
Politicians who champion meritocracy are pursuing something we’ve basically already got. In today’s Britain, talent and hard work easily trump social class background. We should be telling our children this, rather than filling their heads with Marxist fairy tales about unfair privilege and class bias. Maybe then, even more of them will go on to fulfil their potential in the future.