The death of the ‘British dream’: Perceptions of declining social mobility in the UK

October 22, 2013, 9:12 AM GMT+0

Dr Mike Finn discusses the failure of education as the political 'dream machine' of social mobiliy.

The social mobility ‘crisis’ in Britain is a commonplace of editorials and op-eds; married to the separate, but related, issue of the standard of living, it has taken on added importance against a backdrop of fiscal austerity – with government cuts hitting those services traditionally expected to impact positively on social mobility.

With less than two years to go to a General Election, research for the YouGov-Cambridge programme shows nearly two-thirds of those polled believe it will be harder for their children to enjoy the same standard of living they themselves have come to expect.

The idea that social mobility might not just flatline, but decline, has been a spectre on the minds of politicians since the publication of the Sutton Trust/LSE report into intergenerational social mobility in 2005. That report claimed that Britain ranked poorly compared to other developed economies in terms of social mobility (bottom) – and that mobility was already in decline. The finger pointed at education; something had gone wrong with educational expansion – although mass higher education (to take one example) had theoretically been inaugurated with the publication of the Robbins Report in 1963, the reality was that the middle classes had benefited disproportionately from this transition. It had not, as some of its proponents intended, opened up the floodgates to talented youth from non-traditional backgrounds.

After university expansion, the reality was a degree became a middle-class badge of respectability; greater number of student places did not automatically mean greater social mobility – rather they mirrored existing class divisions. Consequently, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, as the Milburn review in 2009 discovered, the top echelons of the civil service and the professions remain as resolutely middle class (and even upper middle class) as ever.

The recent OECD review into skills in the leading developed economies found England to be the only one where the generation approaching retirement was more skilled – in literacy and numeracy – than the one entering the workforce. This has implications for economic performance, implying that Britain may in future (with England as its largest unit) struggle to compete in a globalised economy given its entrenched social inequalities and the consequent impact on the skills base. The Sutton Trust’s review of PISA data for England and Scotland in July revealed that bright children from less affluent homes were on average two-and-a half years behind their peers from more affluent background – with Scotland having the largest differential in the developed world and England the second-largest. Class it seems is alive, well, and strangling human capital both in the classroom and beyond.

Of course, social mobility and the standard of living are not one and the same; as John Goldthorpe notes, social mobility can be relative or absolute, and though mobility usually implies changes in the standard of living, the relationship is more complex than simply this.

However, in the public mind the two are often conflated. Perception – in a time of austerity – is key. Goldthorpe’s contribution is significant in that it also calls into question the role of education – Goldthorpe notes that political rhetoric has often been divorced from social reality, and that the moment of considerable absolute social mobility was the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with the attendant opportunities the new state presented. At no point, Goldthorpe argues, has education by itself been able to make a significant dent in social mobility or, more prosaically, the class system. Yet education has remained the political gospel in the search for the road to the land of milk and honey. Education, in post-war Britain, has been the politicians’ dream machine – able to conjure economic growth and social mobility all at the same time. It now appears that it failed on both.

For politicians, an environment of parental fears of declining social mobility and a reduced standard of living, coupled with clear and continuing class divisions, provides difficult terrain to be navigated in the build-up to a General Election. Even worse, the recent OECD review seems to legitimise business fears that the formal education system has left Britain’s youth ill-prepared to compete on a global stage. This is a narrative that no-one wants to sell. Significantly, the YouGov research shows that 78% of those polled believe it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the same life-chances for rich and poor, whilst nearly two-thirds believe this has not been achieved. Meanwhile, the government’s own social mobility commission reports that the standard of living of the ‘squeezed middle’ may also be subject to generational decline.

The YouGov research clearly shows that the ‘middle’ feels squeezed. For those at the bottom, the possibility of gaining the same life-chances as those in the middle – even a squeezed middle – remains as remote as ever. The lesson is obvious: in the post-war period, politicians have consistently raised expectations of what the state can deliver in terms of social aspiration and an increased standard of living. They may now have to reap the whirlwind of a disaffected electorate whose expectations they raised – and then betrayed.