What have education systems in the UK ever done for social mobility?

What have education systems in the UK ever done for social mobility?

The post-war period  marked the beginning of an era during which it was hoped that education systems in the UK could be re-designed in order to ensure that no individual’s background would be a barrier to opportunity: that rigid pre-war class divisions could finally be put aside in order to create a more equal society, and the kind of social mobility that had erstwhile seemed unattainable. But the halcyon optimism of the post war period has faded from memory, to be replaced by what appears to be a yawning chasm between the attainment of children from poor homes and those from more privileged backgrounds. (Clifton & Cook, 2012).

International comparators such as the OECD’s PISA report (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment); have revealed that although an attainment gap exists in most OECD member countries, the English case is particularly concerning. In England pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do less well than their peers (Mortimore & Whitty, 2000). With 77% of the between school differences in student performance linked to socio economic background, pupils in England appear considerably disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in the rest of Europe (OECD average 55%) (OECD, 2010(a)). A report by the same organisation revealed this gap to be almost three times larger in England than in other OECD countries (OECD, 2006; Schütz, Ursprung, & Wößmann, 2008). This data combined with recent damning reports in the English press , and a new Chief Inspector (Sir Michael Wilshaw) who believes that too many children in England are ‘being failed, after spending their entire primary or secondary education in schools rated no better than ‘satisfactory’ (Paton, 2012), place increasing levels of pressure upon Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), to ‘raise the bar’  and create an inspection system which transfers that increasing pressure onto schools, demanding that they raise standards and ensure that England’s international education ranking is improved.

But the problem is not confined purely to England: a report commissioned in 2007 into Scottish education revealed that although Scotland has one of the most equitable school systems among OECD countries, there is no room for complacency and in spite of a number of policy innovations aimed at closing the attainment gap, a recent report from the London School of Economics revealed the gap to be as wide as ever: there is still much to be done as their blog reports:

Furthermore, our findings show deep levels of inequality in Scotland, particularly between pupils from different socioeconomic groups. For example, the PISA data for maths in Scotland in 2009 show that the difference between the most advantaged quarter of young people and the least advantaged quarter is 93 points. The top quarter achieved 549 points, which is on a par with the average score in Hong Kong (which was placed third in the OECD for maths that year), while the bottom quarter achieved only 456 points, on a par with Turkey (which was placed 44th). Source –http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/35369.

Wales too gives cause for concern as this recent article illustrates : http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/oecd-adult-literacy-numeracy-uk-poverty-inequality

But a substantial body of research for example that carried out by Rasbash et al (Rabash, Leckie, Pillinger, & Jenkins, 2010), indicates that only 20% of variability in a pupil’s achievement is attributable to school quality and the rest is down to pupil-level factors (family influence, neighbourhood etc.) : factors that are often sidelined in international reports compiled from statistical data.

Attempts to bridge the gap have resulted in a plethora of  policy development  in education; development which many teaching professionals perceive to be ‘innovation overload’: too many policies that are not based on cumulative research within the sector, but perceived by many to be driven by the political whims of successive governments. As David Hopkins writes in his recent paper, ‘Exploding the myths of school reform,’:

‘the failure of so many educational reform efforts to impact on the learning and performance of students, is due to misguided action based on a number of myths associated with school reform that remain prevalent in education to the present day.’ (pp:304)

So what has the UK School system ever done for social mobility? 

Join the debate on Facebook: November 1st: Friday Thinkers on the Social Science Website.




Clifton, J., & Cook, W. (2012). A Long Division: closing the attainment gap in Engand’s Secondary Schools London: IPPR and Save the Children

Hopkins, D. (2013). Exploding the myths of school reform. School Leadership and Management, 33 (4), 304-321.

Mortimore, P., & Whitty, G. (2000). Can School Improvement Overcome the Effects of Disadvantage. London: Routledge.

OECD. (2010(a)). PISA 2009 Results. What students know and can do. In OECD (Ed.). Paris.

Paton, G. (2012). Ofsted: one million children stuck in coasting schools, The Telegraph.

Rabash, J., Leckie, G., Pillinger, R., & Jenkins, J. (2010). ‘Children’s educational progress: partitioning family, school and area effects’. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 173(3), 657-652.