News & Insights 30 November 2018

Review of ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin

Reading ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’, a new book by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin.

This book is a valuable read if you want to understand the sorry state of social mobility in Britain, and why our education system alone is not levelling the playing field for young people – but we shouldn’t be demoralised.

On the topic of social mobility, Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin make a powerful duo: The former is Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, a foundation dedicated to improving social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes, research and advocacy. The latter is Professor of Economics at the LSE with a long list of publications on the economics of education and inequality in the labour market. The two have teamed up to produce a new book on social mobility in Britain and the main forces that work against it. Given the vision of Action Tutoring – a world where no child’s life chances are determined by their socio-economic background – I was very keen to get my hands on a copy!

‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ is a neatly presented book of unintimidating size. In the first few chapters, I learnt some new and impressive-sounding terms – including ‘intergenerational elasticity’. Although I occasionally had to ask for help to understand the graphs, overall the book is quite accessible; the authors get their messages across using metaphors, analogies and real-world examples.

Tracking trends in the economy and in education over several decades, the book shows the relationship between low social mobility and inequality of wealth and income. To use a metaphor from the book: as inequality grows and the rungs in the ladder become wider, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to climb up. The book touches on the strong incentives to help talent rise to the top, wherever it may come from – the potential for improved economic growth, leaders with an enhanced understanding of the problems and experiences of others, and the strength and innovation that diversity can bring. It also shows how the choices of individuals can harm social mobility just as much as a broken system, as often well-meaning parents hoard opportunities for their children – whether paying for exclusive tuition or renting properties to gain entry into sought-after schools – even if this exacerbates inequalities down the line or holds back a less privileged child.

The book is not a joyful read. It is full of sobering statistics and draws bleak conclusions. Some of the findings are familiar – how the top spots in many professions are still dominated by individuals educated in a small circle of elite schools. At other times, the analysis presented is more alarming: one graph, with criss-crossing lines, starkly demonstrates how children’s development up to the age of ten depends strongly on their socio-economic status: children who perform highly in cognitive tests early but come from disadvantaged backgrounds show a steady decline in performance by age ten, overtaken by less able but more privileged peers, who overcome their difficulties over time. The link between family income and test scores is particularly strong in the UK. In another dismal passage, the authors consider growing illiteracy and innumeracy in England. There are clear links between these skills, employment prospects and health, but successive attempts to reform the system have failed to improve the situation. Many continue to leave school without the most basic English and maths skills they need to get on in life.

In the final chapters, the authors explore some ways that we might sweep away unfair advantages and unlock greater social mobility: for example, the possible benefits of using lotteries to determine school and university admissions. They stress the importance of a system which nurtures talents of all kinds, not just academic ones, and pursuing policies to improve equality of opportunity at a local level. One of the strongest messages is that when it comes to education, you can’t skimp on quality or on cost. “Lives cannot be turned around on the cheap.” The authors affirm that “if we have high ambitions for education to help improve social mobility amid growing inequality, then we must be prepared to pay for it.” Schools are facing the biggest funding cuts in a generation and “teachers are among the key public sector workers who warrant higher salaries.”

However, whilst our education system can and does transform the lives of individuals, teachers on their own can’t cancel out the “extreme inequalities” outside the classroom that play such an important part in determining children’s outcomes. Implementing new approaches to teaching based on cutting-edge research can only do so much. If we want to make real gains in social mobility, we need to make education fairer and reduce the extreme inequality in our society.

Elliot Major and Machin don’t shy away from the enormity of the challenge. There is no simple or easy fix. However, other countries as well as small pockets within the UK “offer rays of light” that the situation can change. Although we may not be able to replicate the exact environment and outcomes found in countries like Finland or Canada, it is encouraging, when faced with such a formidable task, to see it that others have been able to find a better balance.

At Action Tutoring, we can be proud to be part of an evidence-based initiative which sees promising results every year, supporting thousands of young people to progress despite their background and individual challenges. ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ makes a strong case for rethinking education and employment practices in this country, and it demonstrates how much evidence is now being generated to find what works. But, while we wait for new solutions to come to light, we don’t have to stand by and see more young people leave school without basic skills and qualifications, facing an impossible climb upwards. There are many organisations in this country working to counteract these biases, often through the efforts of remarkable volunteers, proving that individual choices can also be a powerful and positive force for social mobility.

Elliot Major, L. and Machin, S., 2018. Social Mobility and its Enemies. London: Pelican books – Penguin.

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