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."


For further information, contact:
Dr Cristina Iannelli on 131-651-6281; e-mail: [email protected]

Professor Lindsay Paterson on 131-651-6380 ; e-mail: [email protected]

Or Alexandra Saxon or Annika Howard at ESRC on 17-9341-3032/413119

1. The research project 'Education and Social Mobility in Scotland in the 20th Century' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Iannelli is at the Centre for Educational Sociology, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, EDINBURGH EH8 8AQ. Professor Paterson is in the Department of Education and Society, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, EDINBURGH EH8 8AQ

2. Methods: The research was based on secondary analysis of three large social surveys. First, the Scottish Household Survey (SHS) of 15,000 people, which has been carried out annually since 1999 on behalf of the Scottish Executive. Researchers used the responses of 8,500 people of working age (25 to 64) when asked in 2001 what their parents' occupations were when they themselves were 14. This survey also provided information about religion. Second, the Scottish Mobility Study of 1974, is a cross-sectional survey of men aged between 20 and 64. A sample of more than 4,000 men born between 1910 and 1949 (aged 25-64 at the time of the survey) was compared with others born between 1937 and 1976 in the SHS survey. Lastly, was the British Household Panel Study (BHPS), run since 1991, and enhanced in 1999 to include around 3,000 sample members in each of Scotland and Wales, along with 9,000 in England.

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005/6 is 135million. At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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