In a comparison of eight European and North American countries, Britain and the United States have the lowest social mobility
Social mobility in Britain has declined whereas in the US it is stable
Part of the reason for Britain's decline has been that the better off have benefited disproportionately from increased educational opportunity
Researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) have compared the life chances of British children with those in other advanced countries for a study sponsored by the Sutton Trust, and the results are disturbing.
Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Steve Machin found that social mobility in Britain - the way in which someone's adult outcomes are related to their circumstances as a child - is lower than in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. And while the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider.
A careful comparison reveals that the USA and Britain are at the bottom with the lowest social mobility. Norway has the greatest social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Germany is around the middle of the two extremes, and Canada was found to be much more mobile than the UK.
Comparing surveys of children born in the 1950s and the 1970s, the researchers went on to examine the reason for Britain's low, and declining, mobility. They found that it is in part due to the strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment.
For these children, additional opportunities to stay in education at age 16 and age 18 disproportionately benefited those from better off backgrounds. For a more recent cohort born in the early 1980s the gap between those staying on in education at age 16 narrowed, but inequality of access to higher education has widened further: while the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of families obtaining a degree has increased from 6 per cent to 9 per cent, the graduation rates for the richest fifth have risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.
The researchers concluded: 'The strength of the relationship between educational attainment and family income, especially for access to higher education, is at the heart of Britain's low mobility culture and what sets us apart from other European and North American countries.'
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: 'These findings are truly shocking. The results show that social mobility in Britain is much lower than in other advanced countries and is declining - those from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to continue facing disadvantage into adulthood, and the affluent continue to benefit disproportionately from educational opportunities. I established the Sutton Trust to help address the issue, and to ensure that all young people, regardless of their background, have access to the most appropriate educational opportunities, right from early years care through to university.'
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For more information, contact Tim Devlin, press officer, The Sutton Trust, 01205 290817, mobile: 07939 544487 or email email@example.com
Or Jessica Winterstein, LSE Press Office, on 020 7955 7060, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America is by: Jo Blanden, research officer at the Centre for Economic Performance, Paul Gregg, senior research fellow at the Centre for Economic Performance, and Steve Machin, research director of the Centre for Economic Performance.
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25 April 2005