Why is social mobility still such a problem?

Boy and girl on estate

Getting the best start in life for people who come from a poor background has always been a difficult issue for politicians. This week a government-commissioned report identified a cycle of "dysfunction and under-achievement" - and the need to tackle it by throwing resources at vulnerable children from a very young age. But can failure to achieve in early years halt social mobility from the outset?

According to 2005 research from the London School of Economics there was an overall decline in social mobility in the UK between 1958 and 1970.

The people who moved forward during this period were from the middle classes, the researchers concluded. If your parents were well educated and have a good income, it trickled down into the next generation.

It also suggested children from poorer backgrounds did not benefit from any of the changes that were going on in society like the expansion of higher education in the 1980s.

'Behind Europe'

In this week's report, Labour MP Graham Allen says success or failure in early childhood has "profound economic consequences" and calls for more private money to be channelled into early intervention schemes to help set children on the right path in life.

He recommends regular assessments of all pre-school children, focusing on their social and emotional development.

The government, which will unveil plans to tackle "permanent social segregation" later this month, acknowledge that failure to achieve in early years can affect social mobility, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said.

The independent National Equality Panel was set up in October 2008 and has produced several reports looking at how people from different backgrounds typically come in the distributions of earnings, income or wealth in England.

In its latest report in January 2010 about social mobility, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK it concluded: "Moving up a ladder is harder if its rungs are further apart, and those who start higher up fight harder to ensure their children do not slip down".

National Equality panel chairman, professor John Hills said: "It does depend on how you measure income, and its links to occupation, but the UK has less mobility than Europe."

In terms of international comparisons, measuring social mobility by how well children do from one generation to the next, the LSE study found the UK lags behind countries like Germany Sweden, and Finland.

In the comparison of eight European and North American countries, the UK and US were at the bottom, with the lowest social mobility.

Two years ago, a major study by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn warned that social mobility had slowed - and that the most sought-after professions were increasingly dominated by young people from affluent families.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation agrees that one of the reasons for the decline in social mobility in the UK is the lack of progression in jobs and a career path for people in poverty.

Helen Barnard, poverty programme manager at the charity, says: "With low skills and and low quality jobs, there is no progression, and with manufacturing gone, it is harder to progress from a low skill area."

The foundation says having access social networks also play an important part in this.

It is a view echoed by the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity which organises work experience for well educated students from lower income backgrounds.

David Johnston, chief executive officer, says: "We have situations where firms are quite open with us in saying that we can offer work experience or internships, but you need to be a relative of one of our clients."

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