Sorry, Being Born Rich Still Leads to Success More Than Working Hard in School

But economic justice groups in the UK are campaigning hard to fix a broken system.

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Oct 18 2017, 8:00pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sweeping education reforms have done very little to change the fact that in the UK, being born well is by far the surest route to prosperity. Since the 1980s, the degree of social fluidity in Britain has plummeted with more people experiencing descent than ascent.

"Decades of educational policy have completely overlooked that younger generations of men and women now face less favorable mobility prospects than did their parents—or their grandparents despite having earned higher qualifications," Dr. John Goldthorpe – a leading sociologist at the University of Oxford and author of the study Social Class Mobility in Modern Britain: Changing Structure, Constant Process – told VICE Impact. "That is, they are less likely to experience upward mobility and more likely to experience downward mobility,'

His work shows that investments in education at the national level have very little impact on social mobility because rich families are using their economic, cultural and social capital to ensure that their children stay ahead. According to Goldthorpe, the only factor that can increase upward mobility is not how much education individuals obtain, but rather how much they receive relative to others.

"Education is important, but it is clearly not enough to level the playing field, or to lift people up from poorer backgrounds." Dr. Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director of The Equality Trust, a grassroots organization that campaigns for economic equality, told VICE Impact "In many professions, privately educated students receive significantly higher pay than their state school counterparts, even when they've received exactly the same degree from the same university. There's also a huge class pay gap in many top jobs in the UK."

"Education is important, but it is clearly not enough to level the playing field, or to lift people up from poorer backgrounds."

For example, while it is widely considered to be a big win that more British students hold A levels (equivalent to AP credits and a stepping stone to a university degree) than previous generations, admissions to top universities remain extremely selective with few spots available – and these are typically reserved for rich private school kids. Parents are more motivated by the fear of downward mobility than the prospect of upward mobility.

Similarly, the rapid expansion of tertiary education in the UK has created an overqualified pool of candidates for graduate positions, failing to curb soaring inequality and other social and economic woes.


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What is striking about Goldthorpe's study is that if we treat educational attainment in absolute terms, then decades of investments have yielded unprecedented results, but if we treat education in relative terms, then we find that the correlation between individuals' class origins and their educational attainment hasn't budged. Policies designed to develop children's and students' educational potentials – from pre-school programs for disadvantaged kids to minority entry quotas into elite universities – overlook the root cause of the problem.

This means British policymakers should take steps to bring investments in equality of living, social and economic conditions in line with investments to raise the quality of education.

Working hard in school is no longer a guarantee of success.

Goldthorpe is a staunch advocate of an education-based meritocracy: a system in which students' university and career prospects are based on their academic achievements relative to their social origins. More funding of research and development, more investment in public services, and a wide range of redistributive macroeconomic policies could level the playing field.

"A progressive tax system that more effectively taxes wealth and rents (including a progressive property tax), a system of social security that better supports low income families, policies to promote employee ownership, a substantial house building programme - there is a long list of political measures that can be taken, providing there is also political will." says Wyporska

In the last general election, Jeremy Corbyn – the leader of the Labour Party – campaigned on a platform of generous welfare provisions and large-scale investments in public services and infrastructure, but was ultimately defeated. British society must come to grips with the idea that working hard in school is no longer a guarantee of success. Working-class families can't tie their children's fate to any government's educational policy and should favor politicians with plans to tackle economic inequality first and foremost.

"Inequality unravels the social fabric that binds us together, but it is not inevitable. It is the product of dismal decisions taken by politicians who've forgotten that economic growth should benefit us all." Wyporska said.

READ MORE: Here's What the US Can Learn From Finland's Student-First Education Policy

Goldthorpe's study ends with a sobering reminder of how to curb the social mobility trap 'Perhaps policymakers committed to the idea of "greater opportunity for all" would do well to focus their efforts on reducing social inequalities of condition and on creating rising demand within the economy for personnel in high-level managerial and professional roles – and then leave social mobility to look after itself.'

The Equality Trust campaigns to improve quality of life in the UK by reducing its extreme levels of social and economic inequality. Those interested in tackling inequality can join a local group or set up their own by contacting bill.kerry@equalitytrust.org.uk. Alternatively they can keep up with The Equality Trust's work and events through their social media channels or their newsletter.

Readers interested in improving social mobility in the UK can check out this program to see which parties advance ambitious policies to tackle income inequality. They can also call on members of the UK's Social Mobility Commission to get them to recognize the importance of the economic roots of social mobility.