Social mobility in the UK: poor but not getting worse

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The Sutton Trust yesterday released a report (available here) on social mobility in the UK, which concluded that the UK continues to perform poorly on measures of social mobility. Between 1958 and 1970 there was a well documented decline in social mobility. For example, as the report states, for sons in the bottom quartile the proportion remaining in the bottom quartile is 30 per cent for children born in 1958 and 38 per cent for those born in 1970. (Sons are used to remove the effect of changing levels of women’s labour market participation). Also, there was less likelihood of those born in 1970 making large movements in economic group, with the percentage rising from the bottom quintile to the top quintile at 18 per cent in 1958, declining to 11 per cent in 1970. A significant factor in explaining this fall in social mobility is the rising association between family income and accessing higher education.

Evaluations of more recent data finds that since 1970 there has been little change in intergenerational mobility. Social immobility ‘appears to have flattened out’, although it has not started to improve the report concludes. Britains comparatively high level of social immobility therefore continues. This has a major impact on the attainment different groups can expect. The report says: ‘Children in 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’. By contrast, those from the richest households who were among the least able at three moved up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by the age of five. If this trend were to continue, they would overtake the gifted children from poor backgrounds by the age of seven.

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