Social mobility in England still lagging behind rest of the world

An ISER report on behalf of The Sutton Trust into education mobility, an indicator of future social mobility, has found that children’s levels of achievement are more closely linked to their parents’ background in England than in many other developed nations. There are signs of some improvement over the period of the Labour Government, but stark inequalities remain.

The research by Emilia Del Bono and John Ermisch looked at the test scores of 15,000 children born in 1989/1990 and compared these to previous cohorts born in 1958 and 1970, as well as results from overseas. The findings place England significantly behind similar nations, with 56% of children from degree-educated parents in the top 25% of test scores at age 14, compared with 9% of children whose parents left school without O-levels. This gap of 47 percentage points is over twice the equivalent gap in Australia (23 points), and higher than the gap in Germany (37 points) and the USA (43 points).

In addition, an updated analysis of 20 countries looking at the relationship between the number of books at home (an indicator of parental education levels) and children’s test scores, places England and Scotland at the bottom of the international ranking. Children from more highly educated homes in England, for example, were almost five times more likely be amongst the top performers in maths tests than their peers from poorly educated homes – double the equivalent figure in Belgium (at the top of the rankings) and considerably higher than in Australia, Canada and Italy.

There are, however, some indications of an improvement for the 1989/90 generation, educated almost entirely under Labour. The advantage of having degree educated parents in terms of performing well in tests at age 11 and 16, for example, has diminished (see summary table, below). The raw attainment gap at age 11 (the difference between the proportion of children from highly- and lowly- educated families achieving in the top 25% of test scores) has also decreased markedly from 37 to 27 percentage points.

Even so, major inequalities persist. Children born to degree-educated parents in 1989/1990 were four times more likely to obtain at least five GCSEs at Grades A* to C than those born in the same year to parents who did not go to university. And the research finds that the achievement gap widens during the teenage years, almost entirely because children with degree educated parents are far more likely to attend higher performing secondary schools, benefiting from a combination of better resources, teaching, advice and positive peer effects. A major obstacle to education, and consequently social, mobility is therefore the high levels of social segregation in English secondary schools.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:

“Education mobility points the way to the level of future social mobility in this country. While there are some signs of progress, we are still not serving the needs of the current crop of school pupils as well as we should and parental background remains a much more significant determiner of children’s life chances in the UK than elsewhere.”

“We need to consider more radical options to create more balanced intakes in secondary schools and pilot innovative approaches to improve attainment for the most disadvantaged children. A failure to respond to this challenge is to condemn our talented children – and our economy – to the bottom of the class in education’s new world order.”

Education Mobility in England – The link between the education levels of parents and the educational outcomes of teenagers


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