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In a few minutes I am off to do a talk about social mobility. It’s mainly to advise a charitable trust on the kind of projects it might want to support, but I shan’t be able to resist taking a pop at the whole concept and the way it is abused, especially by politicians.

First, there is the tendency to understate the importance of the distinction between absolute and relative mobility. The former increases when the middle class expands (as it did in the 50s, 60s and 70s), the latter when more people move up and down, and move further, on the social-economic ladder. When people talk about the success of grammar schools opening up opportunities in the post war decades they often forget how much this was a function of there being so many more spaces to join the middle class. In contrast, there is little absolute mobility today, the middle classes fight hard to win a zero –sum game and the remaining grammar schools tend to have very few pupils on free school meals.

Second, if we had perfect relative social mobility, but still high inequality, we would probably be a rather unhappy country. This is because people who lose status suffer a greater loss of contentment than is gained by people who achieve higher status.

Third, social mobility is often posited as a fairer and more moderate strategy than income redistribution. However, greater social equality is one of the best routes to increased social mobility both because there is less distance to travel and because people are less frightened of the consequences of downward mobility.

Which, fourth, is important because, although politicians always like to focus on the task of raising poor people up the ladder, an equally intractable – but much less politically palatable – problem is finding ways of easing more people (the underserving well-off) down the ladder.

It was with the points in mind that I read Nick Clegg’s Tuesday speech on social mobility.  It’s important that he made the speech and in doing so reinforced the Coalition’s commitment to increasing mobility. There were also some good passages – particularly the one where he argues passionately for the principle that universities should take into account applicants’ social and school backgrounds in assessing their attainment. He reminds his listeners of the Bristol University research showing that students who get top A levels from state schools are twice as likely to get top degrees as students achieving the same A levels in independent schools. Commendably, Bristol has used this research to tilt the playing field towards state educated pupils but – the last I heard - most other Russell Group universities were refusing to follow suit.

But the speech was also guilty of some predictable failings. For example, there is the straw man trick. Clegg says he wants to explode the number one social mobility myth that ‘mobility will follow automatically in the wake of greater equality’ pointing out that Canada and Australia have UK levels of inequality but higher rates of mobility. The problem here is, first, no one actually subscribes to the idea that greater equality is all you need to promote mobility and, second, although there are different levels of mobility between countries with similar levels of inequality, looking at comparative data overall it is clear that mobility rates are higher in more equal societies.

While this point in the speech seems disingenuous another shows how easy it is to confuse absolute and relative mobility. Clegg cites Sutton Trust data showing that if pupils currently performing below national average in education got to the average it would be good not just for society but for the economy. But, of course, if you pull everyone on the left hand side of a distribution up to the midpoint then the mid-point simply moves to the right. Unless higher attainment at the bottom is accompanied either by greater relative mobility and/or by more middle class jobs then it simply means we have a better educated pool of unemployed and low paid workers (which is to some extent what we are now seeing).

Clegg speech ends with a passage about the pernicious impact of class. Here the implication is that poor mobility is a function of stratification, and about people clinging onto privilege as much as people being denied opportunity. But the Deputy Prime Minister doesn’t translate this insight into anything more hard edged in terms of Government or the responsibilities of other institutions or wider society.

The Coalition wants to be taken seriously on social mobility. As a core goal it has survived much better and is taken much more seriously across Government than the ill-fated Big Society. But as well as applauding the intent and supporting relatively uncontroversial policies like investment in the early years – we also need to debate the challenging aspects and implications of becoming a more meritocratic society.


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