Education Reform Not Enough To Tackle The UK's Social Mobility Problem

23/02/2017 14:47

What is the value of education? What is the current state of social mobility in the UK? Can more, or better, education solve the "mobility" problem? Although seemingly abstract, these are questions that occupy not only academic researchers, but also social commentators, political leaders and laymen. Each person must, as they go through their life-course, make a personal choice on the type and quality of education they wish to receive and obtain. Many studies have shown that those with higher education levels will have better life-outcomes in terms of employment, occupation, earnings, health, and many other factors.

It is therefore natural to believe that education is also key to solving issues of social mobility. More and better education for those from poorer and disadvantaged family backgrounds will lead to better outcomes, and close equality and mobility gaps that persist in contemporary UK society. From a theoretical and macro-scale argument this type of thinking seems perfectly sensible and is subscribed to by many people (including myself); nobody would argue that a return to the education and class based systems of the 18th or 19th century is in anyway desirable.

However, this belief may not necessarily be compatible with current academic research. Firstly, although the Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation 2016 report stated that "Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse..." this is not always reflected in empirical findings. Evidence on intergenerational income mobility suggests UK society has become less fluid and those born into poorer family backgrounds are more likely to stay poor then previous generations. However, evidence on class and occupational mobility suggests that such patterns cannot be found and that mobility has at worst remained stable throughout the post-war period. Reconciling such different findings often involves complex debate about data quality, methodology and what type of 'mobility' definitions are being used.

Secondly, the link between education and mobility may not be as straight forward as imagined. Although studies show that children from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds consistently have poorer life outcomes, our analysis of the power and impact of an education reform that forcibly gave poorer children better educational outcomes found that any impact on social mobility was not discernable. Although effects hinted in the 'right direction', the magnitude of the education input compared to the mobility output was disappointingly unbalanced. Other researchers have made similar comments; average educational levels have increased massively in the post-war Britain, but little direct impact of education on social mobility has been found to date.

What then is the solution? Are government policies - such as Raising the Participation Age, Widening Participation in HE, the Teaching Excellence Framework, post-graduate loans, childcare and nursery reforms, expanding vocational education and industrial partnerships, grammar school expansion and academy reforms - doomed to disappoint in terms of social mobility?

Not necessarily. Fundamentally, the focus on education as a driver in addressing mobility is not wrong. However, government's ability to 'nudge' members of society on fundamental matters of choice, equality, opportunity and reward may be more limited than anticipated. Direct policies such as affirmative action, employee quotas and direct tax transfers are more likely to have an immediate empirical impact. However, these would not address any underlying mobility issues. The 'mobility problem' will likely only be resolved via a plethora of policies, initiatives and cultural and altitudinal changes that in sum have sufficient impact to change society. It is unlikely that empirical evidence will be able to pinpoint singular events or policies that can lay claim to solving the mobility problem. And this includes education.