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Low social mobility in the UK has not improved in 30 years

31 December 2007

Social mobility in the UK remains at the low level it was for those born in 1970, with recent generations of children’s educational outcomes still overwhelmingly tied to their parents’ income, according to the latest Sutton Trust research released today.
The study, from the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey and funded by the Sutton Trust, reviews evidence related to children born between 1970 and the Millennium, to determine whether the decline in social mobility between previous generations has continued.

The main findings of the work by Dr Jo Blanden and Professor Stephen Machin show that:

  • Intergenerational income mobility for children born in the period 1970-2000 has stabilised, following the sharp decline that occurred for children born in 1970 compared with those born in 1958.
  • However, the UK remains very low on the international rankings of social mobility when compared with other advanced nations.
  • Parental background continues to exert a very powerful influence on the academic progress of children
  • Those from the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at age three to the 65th percentile at age five.  Those from the richest households who are least able at age three move up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by age five. If this trend were to continue, the children from affluent backgrounds would be likely to overtake the poorer children in test scores by age seven.
  • Inequalities in obtaining a degree persist across different income groups. While 44 per cent of young people from the richest 20 per cent of households acquired a degree in 2002, only 10 per cent from the poorest 20 per cent of households did so.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, commented:

“Shamefully, Britain remains stuck at the bottom of the international league tables when it comes to social mobility. It is appalling that young people’s life chances are still so tied to the fortunes of their parents, and that this situation has not improved over the last three decades.

We need a radical review of our approach to improving social mobility, starting with an independent commission to review the underlying causes for our low level of mobility and what can be done to address it. This is an issue which requires action on a broad front over a long period – it is too important to be used as a political football.”

For its part, the Sutton Trust has been funding since 1997 a wide range of education access initiatives from the early years, through primary and secondary schools, to university and beyond. In partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Trust is also hosting a high level international summit to identify the drivers of social mobility and consider where governments and others should be focussing their efforts.

Dr Jo Blanden commented:

“By looking at the relationship between children's educational outcomes at different ages and parental income we can predict likely patterns of mobility for cohorts who have not yet reached adulthood.  On this basis we cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.”