The Tories have increased social mobility!

Patrick Ainley   Guardian Letter

7538Contrary to the assertions of Alan Milburn (Observer 2 December*), the Tories have dramatically increased social mobility. However, it is general, absolute, DOWNWARD social mobility that has increased, whilst the limited, relative, upward social mobility of the post-war, welfare state period is nowadays so statistically insignificant as to be exceptional. 

As the traditional post-war class pyramid has gone pear-shaped, a select few children of the (mainly skilled) manual working class can no longer move into non-manual administrative and professional careers. Instead, those in a new middle/working class are running up a down-escalator of devalued qualifications, desperate not to fall into the reconstituted reserve army of labour in low-paid, insecure, unskilled and increasingly precarious jobs – perhaps 40% of all employees by some estimates. Meanwhile, formerly secure professions are automated and deskilled. Contracted out and working to targets as demand dictates, they are reduced to the level of increasingly fungible wage labour.

 The result is a dramatic increase in both the rate and volume of that catch-all term ‘social mobility’!




The only social mobility will be downwards?

The latest report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission continues to misunderstand why social mobility rates have largely snakes and laddershalted. It proposes several ‘educational’ solutions from extending school sixth form opportunities (nobody would disagree with this) to forcing schools in low-performing local authorities to take part in improvement programmes so that Ofsted targets can be met (there is no mention of the need for more grammar schools!)

But rates of social mobility largely reflect wider economic inequalities rather than overturning them. The relatively high rates of upward mobility in the post-war years coincided with the growth of ‘middle’ managerial and professional occupations during this period which required recruitment from below – an increase in absolute mobility.

Contrary to the arguments in this report that  there will be a shortage of workers to fill 15 million more highly skilled jobs by 2022,  any growth  of managerial and professional jobs has been far outpaced by the increases in levels of education – around 1 in 4 people under 35 now having university degrees – and the huge growth   in the number of people who can perform them.

With such a large surplus of graduates, rather than moving up, large numbers now fear  being pushed down as further increases in the power of digital and robotic technology  mean that  fewer still will  likely to progress to employment commensurable with their qualifications.

Milburn’s report does on the other hand includes some hard data about the extent of inequality in the UK and this alone makes it a useful contribution


Social mobility’s ups and downs

Sociologist John Goldthorpe’s  argument  that  decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility, deserves to be taken seriously, given his position as one of the leading authorities  (if not the leading authority)  in this area. and ladders

Goldthorpe argues  that improvement in ‘relative’ social  mobility –an increase in the improvement in educational chances of less privileged groups vis a vis others –which would make society more of a ‘meritocracy’  would also  have to involve significant amounts of individual downward mobility for those in the middle and even the upper reaches of society to compensate for  upward mobility from below   As Goldthorpe explains though, ‘parents in more advantaged class positions will respond to any expansion or reform of the education system  by using superior resources –economic, cultural and social –to help their children retain a competitive edge’. Thus this type of relative mobility has continued to be minimal

In contrast, as previous posts to this blog have argued, it was the changes to the occupational structure in the post-war years, particularly the growth of managerial and professional work, which enabled, in fact necessitated a significant amount of ‘absolute’ upward mobility. For this type of mobility to be re-established, as Goldthorpe argues, more ‘top end’ jobs would need to be generated. But now at the start of the twenty-first century this is not happening and on the contrary a new pattern of downward mobility has emerged, as many of those with qualifications which would previously would have allowed them to move up, now find that education becomes like trying to move up a downwards escalator –where you have to move faster and faster merely to stand still.

A recent Ipsos Mori poll for example, shows that 54% of Britons believe young people will be worse off than previous generations leading social mobility tsar Alan Milburn to conclude

“This idea that the succeeding generation would do better than the previous generation is part of the glue that binds, as has been the notion that if you put in effort, you get a reward. Certainly I was brought up to believe that if you stuck in at school, you’d get on in life.

“Unfortunately, there’s pretty compelling data to suggest that that may no longer be the case and that has got huge consequences for social cohesion in our country. It almost feels like we’re facing an existential crisis about what sort of society we want to be,”   (Guardian 12/03/16) 

 Education: a crisis of legitimacy

The belief that each generation does better than the previous generation has been fundamental to the justification behind educational expansion during the second half of the 20th century. Even if the increased opportunities  to ‘get on’ were  the result of changes in the occupational structure and an expanding economy, new types of qualifications and less selective schools  were still the vehicle through which this process operated and continued to give education ‘legitimacy’.

But now, the emergence of a generation of young people now ‘overqualified and underemployed’ has led to a crisis for an education  system  that  promotes, encourages and  celebrates   ‘achievement’ Instead there is  a re-emphasis on education being about social control. In the upper years of secondary education, exams are being made more ‘rigorous’ so that it is harder to get the higher grades, subject choice has become narrower and traditional ‘end of course’ examination style assessment has been restored in place of more open ‘modular’ learning and coursework. All these are enshrined in the EBacc, which though officially imposed on schools to ‘raise standards’, will, as many teachers recognise, limit opportunities and cement boundaries between those that pass and those that fail.

With constant attacks on the post-war model of education, it’s not surprising that education struggles continue to be largely defensive, but as the traditional expectations   about what education is supposed to enable, continue to crumble, progressive alternative education strategies will need new aims and objectives.

Now Milburn calls for more apprenticeships

Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn
Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn

The latest ONS labour market statistics show large falls in youth unemployment –down 89 000 for 16-24 year olds, but still 16% and nearly three times the adult rate (  The 733 000 unemployed 16-24 year olds include 266 000 full-time students. A more accurate picture is provided by the number of 18-24 year olds not in full-time education.  Here joblessness is down by 63 000 a fall of nearly 200 000 compared to a year ago, with most of these having entered the labour force, yet unemployment for this group still stands at 12%, double the general rate.

As Alan Milburn’s latest Social Mobility Commission Report reminds us, the employment rate for young people remains below pre-recession levels with the number unemployed for over a year, almost double (  Milburn also recognises that falls in young people’s hourly rates of pay to levels recorded 15 years ago stop them making proper transitions to adulthood, consequently a quarter of 20-24 year olds still live with parents,  having  been  excluded from the housing market.  

Correctly identifying that many government efforts to improve the prospects for young workers have fallen well short of their objectives, Milburn’s report only touches on some of the longer term developments in the labour market, ‘The impact of technology and globalisation has reduced middle-skilled, well-paid jobs, whilst the demand for low-paid jobs has increased and is set to rise as current workers retire’ (p 175).

In otherwords, it’s the types of jobs as the availability of employment itself that limit chances of secure employment, let alone upward social mobility. If a third of graduates have to enter non graduate work, those less qualified are inevitably ‘bumped down’ into less skilled, lower paid employment. This situation will not be significantly altered by schools providing better careers advice or higher quality vocational education, some of the policies Milburn advocates.

Likewise, without a radically different approach to running the economy and regulating the labour market; one that challenges rather than simply attempts to adapt to global trends, Milburn’s call for half of all workplaces with ten or more employers to provide apprenticeships by 2020 will be as pie in the sky as David Cameron’s promise of another three million apprenticeships,  the day before (

New figures for 2013/14 show the overall number of apprenticeship falling and still only I in 3 started by those under 19. Many young people have neither an apprenticeship, or a university degree to fall back on.  



Letter  Patrick Ainley,  23/10/14

Download Second Edition of ‘A Great Training Robbery’  (

Guardian letter : response to Wilshaw

 titlepiece 19/06/13

As youth unemployment rose in 1976, Arnold Weinstock, managing director of the General Electric Company, wrote a letter in the Times Education Supplement headed “I blame the teachers” for not preparing pupils for employment. Since then relentless repetition by other leading industrialists, politicians and now the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has deflected attention from employers’ and government responsibility to provide jobs .

Wilshaw also blames “underachievement in state schools” for lack of social mobility. However many “skills” – or rather qualifications – teachers give students, it will not restart the limited upward social mobility from working to middle class that existed in a growing economy from 1945 to 1973. Today even young people who succeed in education find ascent difficult as most mobility is downward. Automation and outsourcing have deskilled much employment, not created “a knowledge economy”. This did not prevent Michael Gove, in the House of Commons last week, from holding the examinations system responsible for the UK’s “failure to compete” with Pacific rim countries. Rather than more such delusions about education, alternative economic policies are required.

Professor Patrick Ainley

University of Greenwich

Alan Milburn,social mobility and education

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

‘Social mobility,’ Nick Clegg declared on 26th May, ‘is the central preoccupation of this government.’

His speech trailed a report by Alan Milburn, former New Labour Minister and now the Coalition’s ‘social mobility Tsar’, which attacked the professions for failing to be more socially inclusive. The Report (Fair Access to the Professions) singled out medicine in particular, but also argued that law, politics and journalism still unduly recruit from private schools and a minority of universities.

Of course this is true but the Coalition do not want to change the super-selective system English of education. Indeed, their higher education reforms make it worse – medical degrees are all at the most expensive English universities and last longer than any other course, making them even more unaffordable for those unprepared for fees of 6 x £9,000 p.a. + expenses. Instead, the Coalition repeat the tired refrain – first heard from Attlee’s first Minister of Education after the war – of ‘making all state schools as good as the best private schools’ so as to ensure equal access to elite universities. ‘What could be fairer than that?’ as ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson asked.

This argument is used by today’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to justify his impending reform of the National Curriculum for schools. Gove’s English Baccalaureate he has already inflicted on all secondary schools consists of the traditional subjects since, not being able (at least not yet?) to reintroduce grammar schools; Gove wants all schools to return to the grammar school curriculum that preserves the academic ethos he cherishes under the pretence that this will increase social mobility.

This avoids the invidious cut-off point at 11+ condemning three quarters of the population to secondary moderns that a national return to grammar schools would represent. The vagaries of predicting the psychologically discredited ‘IQ’ in the 11+ test are also avoided, what though the notion of genetically inherited ‘intelligence’ is popularly sustained by what has been called ‘The New IQism’.

In any case, bringing back the grammars would not restart social mobility since there has been no real upward social mobility since the end of what Milburn calls ‘the golden age’ of the 1950s and ’60s. Then post-war economic development allowed not only expansion of the welfare state but sustained the growth of a non-manual professional class. Working class children were thus able to move up alongside rather than displace those from the middle and upper middle classes. Many, but certainly not all, of these young people were the products of grammar schools – but this was coincidental.

Also coincidental was that this period of what sociologists call absolute upward social mobility (since very few people went down, as would happen if social mobility were ever relative), limited as it was, came to an end at the same time as comprehensive schools were introduced in England and Wales. That this was a coincidence can be seen by comparison with the USA where all-through comprehensive high schools had been introduced after the war and the same period of limited absolute upward social mobility also came to an end there as a result of worldwide economic crisis from 1973 onward.

Since then, declining social mobility has not been due to the ‘underperformance’ of comprehensive schools, but to the fact that managerial and professional jobs ceased expanding at the same rate as they had done previously. At the same time, the level of qualifications held by the population increased at a far greater rate than the number of jobs that required them. As a result, young people today graduate from school, college and university ‘overqualified but underemployed’ (Ainley and Allen 2010).

Widening participation to education extended for longer and longer has been a cruel con. It promised to professionalise the proletariat but actually disguised an on-going proletarianisation of the professions as traditional professional employment has been rendered increasing insecure. This undercut the illusion that joining the new working-middle of society made you middle class in the traditional sense, like buying your own home was also supposed to do.

However, what is happening is an on-going class reformation that in a polarising society sandwiches the new working-middle ‘between the snobs and the yobs’, as had been said. Or rather, between the super-rich above and a ‘rough and unskilled’ section of the formerly manually working class that has been pushed down into so-called ‘underclass’ status below. Failed by academic schooling and worthless vocational qualifications, their children were referred to by the New Labour acronym of NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training). Condemned to the permanent and structural unemployment that has ratcheted up in the latest recession, ‘the criminals who shame the nation’ as The Telegraph called them (10/8/11), have become marginal to society. Without work and without hope, they no longer play by any rules – as seen in last summer’s riots.

Aggravated by on-going automation and outsourcing, this grey economy of part-time, unregulated, insecure and contract/ agency work, which makes up the 40 per cent of jobs estimated to require only one or two days practise to perform, continues to grow. Meanwhile, the graduatisation of a new tranche of retail and service work pushes those who would previously have taken these jobs further down the queue for employment.

To prevent themselves and their children from falling into this growing ‘underclass’, ‘hard working families’, who are the object of politicians’ blandishments – ‘doing, striving and playing the game,’ as Cameron said recently – are desperate to find a secure position for themselves and their children. Instead, they find themselves climbing a down escalator so that, in a class structure gone pear-shaped, you have to run faster and faster simply to stand still.

Like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who argued that the new globalised, ‘knowledge economy’ meant ‘there was more room at the top’, Milburn also over-emphasises the extent to which ‘professional’ work will increase, arguing it will represent over 80% of new jobs being created in the next decade and that, as a result, approaching 50% of all jobs will fit this category by 2020. Milburn includes in this the growing number of ’para-professional’, low-paid, personal service jobs, like teaching assistants in schools for example, that pay barely half of what their teacher colleagues earn.

It isn’t surprising then, that at a time when the labour market is not generating sufficient opportunities for moving up, the education service is once again under attack. Certainly there should be changes in the way schools, colleges and universities operate but not those promoted by Gove. Rather than producing a ‘meritocracy’ or the ‘open society’ that Nick Clegg rattles on about, the Tories’ reforms will produce an even more exclusive education.

‘Posh and posher’?

Patrick Ainley

With tv programmes like Andrew Neil’s ‘posh and posher’ (BBC2 26/1), the public is being fed the myth that a return to grammar schools will restart upward social mobility and is therefore progressive. However, the official introduction of comprehensive schools from 1965 was coincident with but not a cause of ending the limited upward mobility that occurred during the post-war period of full employment. Since then there has been only illusory social mobility as non-manual service employment has expanded at the expense of manual labour. This has been presented as professionalising the proletariat but in reality many of these para-professional occupations are being rapidly proletarianised – teachers are a case in point. Bringing back grammar schools would only cement this new social situation since the only mobility remaining for increasing numbers is downward. Rather than educational solutions, economic ones are required.