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Social Mobility and its Enemies – A review: Finding the Lost Souls.

The eagerly awaited text ‘Social Mobility and its Enemies’ [1] was published on Thursday of last week. Like many others, I pre-ordered it on Amazon and it arrived the same day for reading to commence.
Using a title that paraphrased the iconic two volume text ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ [2] written by Karl Popper in New Zealand during the destruction of Europe in World War 2, was perhaps a little presumptuous. Popper’s magnum opus is one of the most influential critical texts of the 20th Century and it shaped our new beginning. That one of the authors, Stephen Machin, is a Professor of Economics at the LSE, makes it no accidental choice of title. Popper arrived in the UK in 1946 to join the LSE.
The book offers an analysis of the persistent inequalities in our society and races through the various reasons in as much detail as the 259 pages will allow. The fact that the authors are compelled to do this in itself represents a failure to ensure fairness and government indifference – despite their ‘Social Mobility’ rhetoric. On the whole, the book offers, in one place, a comprehensive overview of the roots of the problem. It is highly valuable and should illuminate the situation for those interested in delving further into the issues. All politicians must read it.
Who are the enemies?
In his accompanying Blog [3], author Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust stresses that “Sharp elbowed parents aren’t the only ones to blame for our rigid society”.  But admits that “I too am a parent who has paid private tutors to help my children”. Before listing the ten enemies of social mobility that are expanded upon in the book he notes that: “Yet we are all enemies of social mobility to some extent”.  There I have to differ but that would require a more extensive critique of who “we” are in this context. The enemies are postulated as:
Opportunity hoarders; Admissions cheats; Academic supremacists; Simplistic explanations; Elite education; Poor parenting; Unhealthy inequality; Bad employers; Tax evaders; Detached elites.
Citing ‘simplistic explanations’ runs the risk of falling into a trap of the authors own making. But they just about get away with it. As a scientist, it is necessary to consider the principle of ‘Occam’s Razor’ and seek the simplest explanation as the best one. Also, to consider what is missing in the equation. Firstly, access to resources seems to loom over all of the effects of the enemy’s actions with the exception of ‘simplistic explanations’. Access to one resource or other resource can be attributed to each ‘enemy’ and might even be quantifiable. That the establishment and government are not specifically cited as enemy agents, instead the elite education that spawns most of them, is perhaps a deliberate omission. However, it is government that controls most resources for disadvantaged groups and this is the main controlling point that needs more exploration.
The idea that there is a struggle between classes and an ’Educational Arms Race’ is explored. The inequality between low income and high income families in relation to offspring completing a university degree in part acknowledges that resource is a key factor. One figure illustrates this by comparison of data from 1981, 1983 and 2013.  However the citation has a flaw. The data from 2013 is from a very different data set to the others. The earlier data arises from the National Child Development study of 1958 and the 1970 British Cohort study and sources are cited. The 2013 data is calculated by the authors from the ‘Understanding Society’ data; a national study tracking 40,000 households in the UK over time that is not fully cited [4]. Despite this limitation, the outcome looks like little is improving. The presentation also uses percentage calculations for each income group. Thus, the shock effect of instead seeing the scale and vast numbers of people involved in being disadvantaged is lost.
Another way to look at the stark divide in access to Higher Education is to compare access to differently ranked universities and how it has changed in ten years and much of the lifetime of a government between 2007 and 2017 (See TEFS August 3rd 2018. Is the Government admitting to failure
of its Social Mobility Measures? The progress in ten years [5]). Figure 1 illustrates the % and numbers (as the different sizes of the balls) from the most disadvantaged areas (POLAR area quintile 1) to elite Russel Group Universities and the rest; pre and post-92 institutions. The differential is stark and shows that the newer universities are taking up the bulk of the disadvantaged students.  The most advantaged students go to the most elite universities and still grab the top jobs through internships and contacts. Thus there is an illusion of social mobility through access to university that government likes to promote, but behind the scenes little has changed.
David vs David: Goliath in the wings.
The initial approach was to contrast the fates of two Davids, Cameron (b 1966) and Beckham (b 1975). Both of course are highly successful. For one, this is attributed to an advantaged background. To the other a “fortunate” escape. For one we might conclude: You know, I think I could do that. For the other we might say: OK I give in; I could not do that. Therein lies the advantage of exceptional talent over those who are not particularly talented but are educated well. In one case the metaphor of Goliath was Manchester United, the other Parliament.
It is acknowledged that the Beckham story is exceptional and that he is making sure his children are being privately educated. Not noted is another simple reason for this; that is to ensure the security of his children rather than seeking special advantage.
“The tale of two Davids points to two different social mobility challenges: the millions of adults stuck at the bottom of a social ladder from which Beckham was fortunate to escape”.
Indeed, there are many other Davids not so fortunate. My thoughts immediately strayed to the case of David Dilling who was only nineteen when he was found hanging near his home in Bridgend in 2007 [6]. He was one of several young people who suffered the same fate in the same area around that time. Bridgend has its fair share of social deprivation as government data shows [7]. He is listed as one of the many across the UK whose fate has been linked to the increasing use of anti-depressants [8]. These are increasingly troubled times that some cannot so easily escape from and there will be many Davids out there. That “Recent political voting patterns suggest a stronger disenfranchisement picking up steam” seems inevitable.
The reality of the situation getting much worse is illustrated by displaying figures of intergenerational mobility in birth cohorts from 1958 and 1970. The change in the shape of the curve towards less social mobility is stark.  That the cohort studies were “axed in the 1980s” means that a more extensive longitudinal comparison cannot be made. We live in a world of big data and we must follow closely what is being promoted and what is ignored and cut. The scope for hiding uncomfortable conclusions is increasing as the data sets expand.
Lost Souls.
The description of ‘Education’s Lost Souls’ in Chapter 5 is frankly quite depressing. Paraphrasing the title of Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’ added to this sense of gloom. The idea of government buying and selling ‘lost’ or ‘dead souls’ for financial gain came to mind. A metaphor for student recruitment in a market for profit perhaps.
The data shown relates to England, but there is no reason to suspect that the rest of the UK is much different or maybe worse.  One OECD sample numeracy problem, that a quarter of British adults answered incorrectly, is disturbing. That it relates to a simple calculation of a tank of fuel three quarters full is an accidental irony and it is surprising that we don’t run out of fuel on the roads more often.  The OECD also report that we have “the ‘most illiterate in the developed world”. That we have such low levels of literacy and numeracy should be tackled fiercely. Especially as we isolate ourselves from the rest of Europe and fend for ourselves without skilled migrants coming to help. This might have been explored more as a deliberate social engineering strategy to save money for the UK over time. We simply hire educated people from elsewhere who have been educated at someone else's expense. Better still if they pay to be educated in our Schools and Universities. That seems to be a strategy ready to backfire with BREXIT but it might explain our social predicament.
Improving the situation.
The third part of the book tries to climb out of the depressing situation of privately educated elites dominating all of our professions. Top of the charts in 2012 is 68% of public servants educated privately. The enormity of this inequality is staggering. Many ideas are set out to rethink both work and education and to unlock the elites. Improvements have to be made from day one of a child’s life.  The issue of resource overshadowing the individual arguments is perhaps underplayed.
Errors and sailing too close to the wind.
It is often the case that perfectly good arguments are diminished when flaws are spotted. They prompt the reader to become less confident in the conclusions elsewhere. Then to look for more flaws and to begin to check data and citations. This book is no exception.
Figure 5.4 is central to the argument of generational poor education persistence. However, it was difficult to take in until it appeared that the legend must have been mislabelled and cited as derived from the authors own calculations from OECD data. This methodological approach is used in several places in the book.
The reference to the Association of University Teachers (the main university academic’s union, now UCU) and the response to the Robbins report is a good example of magnifying an earlier piece of sloppy reporting. This organisation has played a key role in supporting the expansion of Higher Education for many years. To distil its attitude to Robbins down to a single quote from an unnamed person cited as saying universities are “scraping the barrel” and the prospects of more degrees that “would be absolutely appalling” was very poor reporting by the Times Higher Education earlier [9]. They reported that a retired academic who worked for the Labour Policy Group around the time of Robbins in 1961 had heard the comments from an unnamed AUT source. It might just as well have been a quote from ‘someone I met in a pub’. It should be corroborated since it is of considerable importance. That attitude still exists today amongst some academics and I have met several who display
terminal arrogance towards their students.  However, it would be wrong to say this is anywhere near representative. The AUT stance of being more concerned about the expansion affecting recruitment of staff, standards and pressure on resources might reflect the position of a union who work for their staff and this was reported in the press at the time (see Fig 2). The authors might have tried to refer to the official submissions of the AUT to the Robbins Committee, even though it is hard to source online [10]. A later TEFS Blog will reassess Robbins and the Social Mobility agenda.
Conclusions and remedies.
The conclusion is simply that there are no simple remedies. However, there is a powerful plea for us to set things right in many different ways. There is no doubting the commitment of the authors to seeking improvements, but it is down to government to work on the problem. The treatise avoided political considerations, however, hopefully the reader might be thinking about this. Could it be that that government is indulging in social engineering? That is, deliberately cutting resources for the disadvantaged and pushing those that can afford it to spend more. Effectively creating a competitive market in people’s aspirations and success.
This means some travel first class or club class while the rest are crammed into coach class. Or perhaps worse, some travel in fully serviced and new private planes whilst the rest risk travel in one that is old and prone to failure; only club class get a parachute.
Education is indeed a “hard slog” and any assistance eases the burden incrementally. The authors state that:
“Two universal lessons emerge from the evidence on how to fulfil education’s promise as a lever of social mobility; always pursue quality over quantity and never compromise on costs”.
But this was the precise position of the AUT with respect to Robbins. Then, as now, it is of course the stuff of government.  Blaming better off parents as the “enemy” if they rise to this challenge for their own children is going too far. That parents are promoting their own children’s prospects is surely expected; that is how humans operate in nature. Given that this behaviour has not changed for a long time, and certainly not between 2013 and 2018 [11], then the enemy probably lies elsewhere. Sutton Trust have just published an important report, Parent Power [11] that is a signpost. It sets out simple recommendations for any government to adhere to and the sign points clearly at the real enemy.
All of the arguments seem to have an element of resources attached. Parents with sufficient funds hold their own resources and can deploy them selectively for their children. Conversely, government holds the bulk of the resources but doesn’t deploy them evenly on social support or education across the board. Even if simplicity is not recommended, a simple well-worn adage  applies: “follow the money”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


[1] Social Mobility And its Enemies. Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin 2018 Penguin Books

[2] The Open Society and its Enemies. Karl Popper 1945. One of the most influential books of the 20th Century.

[4] Understanding Society. The UK household longitudinal study.

[5] TEFS August 3rd 2018. Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures? The progress in ten years.

[6] David Dilling, 19, Pyle, found hanging near home. BBC News Feb 2007

[8] AntiDepAware Promoting awareness of the dangers of antidepressants.

[9] Robbins: 50 years later Times Higher Education October 24, 2013.

[10] Written Evidence: Association of University Teachers: Some preliminary comments on supplementary earnings and on the review machinery proposals of the Robbins Report Reference: NICO 1/5 1963 Held by: The National Archives, Kew Committees and Commissions of Inquiry, 1961-68,1980. This record is held by Sheffield University Library. CSAC 113.4.86/C.290. Committees and Commissions of Inquiry, 1961-68, 1980.
Submissions to the Robbins Committee by others: Agricultural Research Council, Association of University Teachers, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, The Institute of Physics and the Physical Society. Sheffield University Library, not available at The National Archives.


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