Why does everybody lie about social mobility?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2022

Why does everybody lie about social mobility?, Peter Saunders asks:

The answer [to a growing concern that the UK was squandering vast pools of potential working-class talent that it could ill afford to lose], addressed in the 1944 Education Act, was to make all state-aided secondary schools, including grammar schools, free for all pupils. A new national examination — the ’11-plus’ — was introduced, and those scoring high-enough marks were selected for grammar schools, regardless of their parents’ means. From now on, children from different social class backgrounds would be given an equal opportunity to get to grammar schools. The only selection criterion was intellectual ability.

It didn’t take long, however, for critics to notice that children from middle-class homes were still out-competing those from working-class backgrounds in the 11-plus competition for grammar school places. The possibility that this might be because middle-class kids are on average brighter than working-class kids was ruled out from the start.


In 1965, the (privately-educated) Labour Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland, issued an instruction to all local education authorities to close down their grammar schools and replace them with ‘comprehensives’ which would be forbidden to select pupils by ability. Within a few years, all but 163 of nearly 1,300 grammar schools in the UK disappeared.


But very rapidly, the familiar pattern reappeared. Middle-class children clustered in disproportionate numbers in the higher streams of the comprehensive schools, and they continued to out-perform working-class children in post-16 examinations and university entry.

One response to this was to weaken or abolish streaming.


The minimum leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972 to force under-performing working-class children to stay in school longer, and when that didn’t make much difference to the attainment gap, the Blair government legislated in 2008 to force everyone to stay in education or training up until the age of 18. Yet still the social class imbalance in educational achievement persisted.


With nearly half of all youngsters getting degrees, more demanding employers started recruiting only from the top universities. Politicians responded to this by putting pressure on the top universities to admit more lower-class applicants.


Looking back over this sorry half-century history of educational reform and upheaval, we see that we have increased coercion (restricting school choice by parents, forcing kids to stay in education even if they don’t want to, limiting the autonomy of universities to select their own students), diluted standards (dumbing down GCSEs, A-levels and degrees), and undermined meritocracy (forcing universities and employers to favour applicants from certain kinds of backgrounds at the expense of others who may be better qualified). What we have conspicuously failed to do, however, is flatten social class differences in educational achievement.


  1. Longarch says:

    Why do so many people lie about upward class mobility? They don’t want to admit to themselves that they have been living a lie. Upward class mobility was possible circa 1775 in the colonies for indentured servants. A few lucky folks also had some upward social mobility after that. But many people have downward class mobility, and if we tell the kids that, they will refuse to bother going to the government-regulated social indoctrination camps (which we call “schools”).

    So we continue lying to ourselves. It is easier than anything that we have been making bad life choices for so many years.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    France bans streaming and nearly went one step further a few years back. They were going to ban Latin, an optional subject, because it causes defacto streaming. Because few kids do Latin, the school administrations group them into one class which ends up being smarter than the others. Then Hollande lost the election and they seem to have forgotten the war against Latin.

  3. Mike-SMO says:

    Genetics explains a goodly part of it. Effective parents are likely to have effective children. Effective being some combination of “smart” and “hardworking”. Schools can’t change “smart” or “hardworking” except for a bit at the margins. The “poor” are generally “poor” since they have little to work with and little to pass on to their children. Without the “class/caste” system, competence is too valuable to ignore.

    With the profit and regulatory conditions over seas, we have been eliminating the opportunities for those who aren’t IQ “smart”, but who are enthusiastic, creative workers. Front Office pukes have no idea of the potential back in the dark areas of the plant. You can’t change human nature, but you sure can “mine” it.

  4. Bomag says:

    Publicly dealing with differing mental abilities between people and groups of people is apparently a problem too hard to solve, so we have resigned ourselves to lying about it.

  5. James James says:

    Opposition to streaming is inefficient, and part of the war on talent. The purpose of putting all children in the same classroom is to hold back the ones who could be doing calculus while the others are still doing arithmetic.

  6. James James says:

    Regarding “social mobility”, there are several types. There is “churn”, where the correlation between the social status of parents and children is reduced compared to its natural high level. Then there is the eugenic society, documented by Gregory Clark, where downward social mobility is the norm, because the poor don’t reproduce and the children of the rich move down the social classes compared to their parents. Then there is the dysgenic society of upward social mobility, where the rich don’t reproduce and the poor move up to take their place, even as society as a whole gets poorer and worse.

  7. Albion says:

    I went to a decent Secondary school in the UK having failed my ’11-plus’ in the late 1950s. I ended up in the top stream at the school and even considered aiming for the then ’13-plus’ which allowed top level secondary students to test for a place at the local grammar school, but as they played rugby (which I detested) I thought better not.

    There were kids even in the early ‘sixties who, finding digging trenches on a building site rather than learning something they’d never use (hello, algebra) as well as being paid a wage, was a better deal. We never saw one 14 year-old kid who the headmaster frequently demanded to see but was never there.

    One thing became clear when the grammar school option ended and streaming weakened was that we heard more inanities from (usually) Labour politicians. One claimed that the achieving kids in a comprehensive class would encourage the less able to try harder to keep up. Nice try, but reality was any smart kid soon got the sh*t knocked out of him or her so the lower attainers didn’t have to try hard at all.

    When I taught at a college before retiring, a lot of kids there attended only because they were given an allowance (which they spent on fast food and video games, not schoolbooks) and had little interest in learning. I had classes where the useless sat around all day talking in groups and I was forbidden to impose discipline in the hope of making them even attempt class work. Best to leave them alone, I found. Everyone was happy, especially the college bigwigs who merely aimed for 100 per-cent attendances, that was all. (we were lectured if attendance levels fell below 97 per cent). Nonetheless I recall one Labour politician saying that ending this money-for-nothing scheme would be a disaster because ‘students need the money to access learning.’ A lot of them didn’t learn, which we tutors all knew but were discouraged from saying. Yet I can remember being astonished that many of them talked glibly about going to university, because they thought it was a long, paid-for holiday thanks to the likes of Blair. They had no idea what was required there, but somehow understood they could get degrees in a range of pointless subjects.

    Long established teaching staff couldn’t wait to leave or retire as they had seen the decline very much at the sharp end.

    Oddly, 15 and 16-year old ‘difficult’ students were sent from comprehensives to the local college as if that would help them. I had one lad I dreaded seeing in my classes. Whatever ailed him, college wasn’t the answer.

    The truth is the arc of education in the UK has been a prolonged disaster, led by theorists and influenced by career pols who have never taught and wouldn’t try. I expect it can only get worse, so I am just glad I am no longer part of it.

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