Dead Men Left

Monday, April 25, 2005

New Labour: policy almost designed to worsen social mobility

It's hardly news, but I'm glad this story is being given some space.

Children born to poor families in Britain are less likely to fulfil their potential than in other developed countries, according to a report published today.

Researchers at the London School of Economics found that Britain appeared to have one of the worst records for social mobility in the developed world.

They also concluded that Britons were less likely to break free of their backgrounds than in the past.

What's quite startling about the decline in social mobility in recent years is that it appears to be linked to the expansion of higher education. Expanding access to universities whilst substantially worsening the financial barriers to entry - as has happened in Britain, at an accelerating pace, since the early 1990s - simply allocates more university places to the children of the rich. As a group of researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance (PDF file) concluded, after examining the impact of HE expansion in the nineties:

... The effect of cognitive ability on educational attainment has actually decreased, while the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic. A person’s ability is a poorer predictor of how well they do in educational terms now... than in the past.

Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously. This is all the more surprising given the attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s (and indeed ever since) to expand and broaden access to education... Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged.

The entire direction of New Labour's higher education policy - the "50%" target, plus fees - seems almost calculated to worsen these trends.