Review by Sam Baars

Director of research and operations, CfEY

29 Nov 2020, 5:00


Review: Social mobility by Lee Elliott Major and Stephen Machin

By Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin






30 Sep 2020

This book offers a detailed analysis of what we know about social mobiliy but a less compelling case for what to do about it, writes Sam Baars

As director of research at a think- and action-tank, I’m on board with the principle behind Sage’s new What Do We Know and What Should We Do About…? series. The latest addition to the collection, focusing on social mobility, is authored by Stephen Machin and Lee Elliot Major. Both have a solid track record in this field, and it’s not the first time they’ve joined forces on the topic. As a result, this is an assured and detailed book bringing together the latest research, wide-ranging recommendations for practice and authoritative critiques of conventional wisdom. Spoiler alert: schools aren’t the engine of social mobility most of us think they are.

Social mobility has been carefully theorised and measured for decades by academics. It has since entered the public lexicon and lost focus after repeated manhandling by policymakers. The authors do a good job of restoring the clarity of the concept, its multiple meanings and measures. Indeed, the first half of the book – which deals with definitions, metrics and trends over time and between nations – is the strongest. Major and Machin set out four post-war periods defined by different combinations of absolute mobility (room at the top) and relative mobility (chances of different groups making it to the top). This demonstrates two important points. First, judging the state of social mobility depends on whether you measure relative or absolute rates in terms of incomes or occupational status. Second, today’s declining rates of both absolute and relative mobility in the UK are unprecedented.

The argument loses some of its composure towards the finale

In order to carry out robust research we need decent data and decent theory to make sense of it. On the former, Major and Machin don’t pull any punches, offering a damning critique of social science budget cuts which mean we’ve only had two major youth cohort studies in the past 40 years. On the latter, the authors argue that debates about social mobility can’t avoid talking about inequality, fairness and justice, even if politicians have a tendency to. Credit is due for making space for these discussions in a sub-100-page book.

The argument loses some of its composure towards the finale, with some muddle over whether the rise of automation poses the greatest threat to middle- or low-skill jobs. Likewise, while the book feels up-to-the minute with its references to Covid, it pays a somewhat heavy price in typos.

The book closes with a series of recommendations for action. A key takeaway is that we need to take a life-course view of education if we want to ‘level up’ society. The authors recommend boosting on-the-job training for low-skilled workers who are least likely to have received any training since school. As I pointed out recently to the education select committee, lifelong learning has spill-over effects on children’s learning too. Major and I share a childhood connection with Feltham, Middlesex, where we both attended the same FE college. That happy experience might explain the book’s call for decent, high-status vocational training – and my complete agreement with it.

The reforms Major and Machin propose to the school system are less compelling. The authors argue convincingly that compulsory education isn’t the engine of social mobility we think it is – that closing attainment gaps has a limited impact on outcomes over an individual’s life. I’m therefore not sure why they waste time on surface tweaks such as lotteries to increase access to grammar schools for FSM pupils. I’d sooner scrap grammars entirely.

Shortcomings aside, this book achieves a lot within a thin spine. It’s a solid grounder for those new to the topic and has plenty of fresh perspective for readers who know the field well. With the goals of the education system increasingly framed around social mobility, and young people’s future prospects looking more precarious than they have for decades, it is certainly a timely read. Hopefully, they’ll fix the typos on the next print run.

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