Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


23 JANUARY 2008

  Q1  Chairman: I welcome Dr John Goldthorpe, Professor Stephen Machin and Dr Jo Blanden to our proceedings. It is a pleasure to have you here. You will know why you are here. We committed ourselves to having a look at social mobility, and this is by way of a taster to see whether we need to take further evidence. It seemed sensible, given that the work conducted by the London School of Economics, particularly for the Sutton Trust, has opened up an interesting debate about investment in education and whether it is responsible for social mobility. It raised some interesting questions that all of us involved in education would like answered. I declare an interest. I am a governor of the London School of Economics, which probably means that I shall ask harder questions rather than easier ones. John Goldthorpe, I have read much of your work over the years, and I am somewhat of an admirer of your work—let us get that out in the open. Again, I shall not ask you any kinder questions. Do any of you want to say anything briefly to open our discussion, perhaps about your work and where we are with social mobility and how it affects education? We always give people a chance to say something if they want to.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I would be ready to join you in discussion.

  Q2  Chairman: You want to go straight into the cut and thrust?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes.

  Professor Machin: We could give a little overview of the research we have done, if that would be helpful.

  Chairman: Yes, if it is not long.

  Professor Machin: No, it will not be long.

  Chairman: Let us get started then.

  Professor Machin: We have been involved in three strands of research in this area. One is the often-cited work in which we compared what had happened to social mobility across two birth cohorts. We have extremely rich birth cohort data in Britain, where people are followed from when they are born through their lives at various stages. One of the birth cohorts was just under 20,000 people born in 1958; the other was about the same size but of people born in 1970. That is where we have the first finding. We related people's earnings to their parents' across these cohorts, and this relationship strengthened over time. That is when we inferred that social mobility had been falling in Britain, because people's earnings were more strongly associated with their parents' income. That was for the more recent cohort rather than the first cohort. That was a comparison between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts. The second strand of work was to look at more recent changes. We were not able to undertake the same exercise of relating people's labour market earnings to their parents' income, because the people involved were yet not old enough to be in the labour market. But we can look at the relationship between a number of intervening factors, like education attainment and early-age test scores, and how they are related to family income. We found much more constancy in our recent work. The third area of research was done by Jo and other colleagues. They have been comparing what happens if you look at income mobility—looking at how strongly income is correlated across generations as compared to social class mobility. John has done a lot of work on that in the past. There are two papers out there—one by Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe, the other by Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan—that compare what has happened through changes over time, when you use income or when you use social class. That is the kind of research, with three strands, that we have been involved with.

  Q3  Chairman: Can I ask you, Stephen Machin, why did you do this research?

  Professor Machin: Why did we start doing this research? One of my long-term interests is in labour market inequality and how it has moved over time. A lot of that looks within generations, to say how wide the income distribution or the earnings distribution is for the population in a given year. One key feature that underpins that is people's family background and whether it maintains any qualities or generates any qualities across generations as well. My overall interest is in terms of labour market inequality and how the income distribution is evolving over time.

  Q4  Chairman: But you have been commissioned to do some of this research, have you not?

  Professor Machin: For the first strand, we were funded partly by the Sutton Trust. We started that work well before then, because we thought it was of significant academic interest. Of course, it fed into the policy process subsequently, but we were interested in it from a purely academic point of view to start with.

  Dr Blanden: It followed on from previous work that Stephen had done looking at the level of intergenerational income mobility in the UK.

  Professor Machin: The key innovation we made, from the academic perspective, was to start looking at changes over time. There is a lot of work out there that measures how strongly correlated people's earnings or income is with their parents' earnings or income or how their social class is correlated with their parents' social class at a point in time. The main innovation in the newer work that we have done was to start looking at trends or changes over time.

  Q5  Chairman: How did you and the Sutton Trust get together?

  Professor Machin: There are many sources of funding for academic research. In relation to the Sutton Trust, I cannot quite remember the details, but in the same way as we get funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council, it was an opportunity to get funded.

  Dr Blanden: I think you met Peter at some point, didn't you?

  Professor Machin: Yes, I met Peter Lampl somewhere, but that is back in history, I am afraid.

  Q6  Chairman: The reason why I am probing is this. The Sutton Trust is a very respected education think tank and I know that it commissions quite a lot of research. Indeed, Sir Peter Lampl is a good friend, but he does have a particular view, which I imagine he had before he came to you for the research, that there is a lack of social mobility. Did he hear that you were doing research that would back up his ideas?

  Professor Machin: Yes. We must have been at a meeting somewhere where we spoke about common interests. I probably told him that we were very interested not just in looking at a snapshot or point in time, which is how this work currently tends to be done, but in trying to say something about how social mobility has changed over time. Of course, you can see why that would interest Peter.

  Q7  Chairman: Yes. If you had got your money from Coca-Cola or any other commercial organisation, I would probably probe you on this even harder. What was the research brief that Sir Peter Lampl or the Sutton Trust gave you?

  Professor Machin: We wrote the research brief. We said we are interested in doing research on changes over time in intergenerational mobility.

  Dr Blanden: And we did have some preliminary results.

  Professor Machin: We had some preliminary results; that is right. We made the case that this would be—and it has subsequently turned out to be—original research. I think that is partly why it has received so much attention—because people just had not done much on changes over time before.

  Q8  Chairman: Why do you think that is? It is a rather important issue, isn't it?

  Dr Blanden: It was about data.

  Professor Machin: It was about at least two things, one of which was data availability. In terms of a consistent comparison over time, the data have not been available until relatively recently to enable us to do that, in a very representative way. The other point is that the natural thing to do in the earlier work was to look at a point in time and just say: how much or how little social mobility is there?

  Q9  Chairman: Right. So, you completed the research. It has obviously become quite controversial, but certainly it has been used, by politicians of all kinds and by groups. When you are reflecting on the impact of your research, what do you think about it?

  Professor Machin: It has been used by different people in different ways. It has sometimes been used well; it has sometimes been misquoted badly. Sometimes people have pushed it much further than you might want to push it. If we are talking just about the first strand of work, it is a comparison just across two cohorts, born in 1958 and born in 1970—a 12 year period—so it is rather specific in that sense. Some people have made a lot more of it than perhaps we would have made of it—certainly than we have made of it.

  Dr Blanden: Can I follow that up? For example, there has been the idea that social mobility—we should really call it income mobility, particularly when John is here. "Income mobility is falling" is often a headline you will see or a quote from a commentator or politician. Based on these two snapshots, we would never say that. That is one of the reasons why we have gone on to look at what has happened more recently—so that we can find out whether it is true, because certainly our earlier research did not actually tell us that.

  Professor Machin: I think we would say that in that particular period there was a fall in social mobility, intergenerational mobility, income mobility. If you look at our paper, that is what it says. It does not say anything about what is going on today. It does not say what was going on before that either, although there are other pieces of research out there where you can start to pull together the pieces of a jigsaw, if you think about the long time period as well.

  Dr Goldthorpe: The research that my colleagues and I have been doing is concerned with social mobility in terms of social class rather than income. We are interested in the relationship between children's social class and their parents' social class. For that purpose, we treat class on the basis of the National Statistics socio-economic classification, which has been widely used in official statistics since 2001. That is one difference from the work that Stephen and Jo have been doing. The second difference is that we try to work, as far as possible, using representative samples of the entire active population. We also use the birth cohort studies that Stephen has described, but only for want of better data. The position is that between 1972 and 1992, the General Household Survey (GHS) collected data that could be used for social mobility analysis in terms of class. We have analysed that run of data quite extensively. Unfortunately, for reasons that have never been clear to me GHS ceased to collect the relevant data in 1993. So, we have the rather ironic situation that at a time when social mobility has become much more important as a political issue than previously, we do not have good data—at least, not as good as that from between 1972 and 1992. In order to get information, we have resorted to the birth cohort studies. As Stephen has explained, there were two birth cohorts only 12 years apart. So far, we can compare their members only up to their early 30s, which is not entirely satisfactory. I am currently working on extending the nationally based analyses through to 2005, when GHS was required to include an EU module on standards of living. In that module, there is information that is relevant to social mobility. Unfortunately, it is not strictly comparable with the data that we had for the period between 1972 and 1992, but we are working hard to make it as comparable as possible. We have had some preliminary results from that work. Taking the whole set of analyses together, the main findings are as follows. First, in the period between 1972 and the present, we have found no change in the total mobility rate. That is to say that we find no change in the proportion of children in different class positions from their parents. Neither have we found any weakening during that period, in the net association, or net stickiness, between parents' class position and children's class position. That might seem to be a more optimistic conclusion than the one that Stephen outlined on declining income mobility, but in another sense, it is more pessimistic, because we find that, throughout, class mobility seems to have been at a lower level than income mobility. We can use the birth cohort studies for that. We think that looking at mobility in terms of social class captures more of the intergenerational continuity in economic circumstances. Finally, we have found one change. Although the total mobility rate is unchanged, the composition of the rate is changing. In the middle decades of the last century—from about 1940 to the 1980s—we saw steadily rising rates of upward mobility and steadily falling rates of downward mobility. From about the 1990s, those trends tended to level out. Now, especially with men, we find that if anything, rates of upward mobility have flattened out and may even be declining a little, while rates of downward mobility are no longer decreasing and may even be increasing a little. For women, the situation is not quite so bad. For us, that is the important change. If you wish, I can try to explain why I think that change came about.

  Chairman: I had better not ask you that, because my colleague is going to drill down on that in a moment.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I am sorry?

  Q10  Chairman: I had better leave that to some of my colleagues. We will drill down on that in a moment. I have one more question for the moment. We have seen great change in the social class composition of our country have we not? Most of us believe that the number of people describing themselves as being in the middle classes and living a middle-class lifestyle has grown.

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes.

  Q11  Chairman: How does that impact on the very small numbers of people who would now be classified as unskilled workers? I think that the Leitch report said 3.2 million, and that the number is going to down to 600,000 by 2020. Something fundamental is happening in our class structure while you are researching it. Is that all taken into account?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Oh yes. You have put your finger exactly on the explanation for the change that I referred to. During the middle decades of the 20th century, there was very steady growth in the proportion of the active population in professional and managerial employment, and a contraction in the proportion in wage-earning, mainly manual employment. You could say that there was simply growing room at the top. That drove the steady increase in rates of upward social mobility over that period. From the 1990s, that growth in the proportionate size of the professional and managerial salariat, as one might call it, has slowed down. It is still going on, but it has clearly slowed down, especially insofar as higher-level managerial and professional positions are concerned. That is really behind the tailing off of the increase in upward mobility. That is especially marked in the case of men, because they are facing greater competition from women for professional and managerial positions. The change in the shape of the class structure is absolutely crucial to the changing patterns of upward and downward mobility. One point I would add is that over that whole period of major changes in the shape of the class structure and corresponding differences in patterns of upward and downward mobility, what is constant is the inherent what I call stickiness of the relationship between parental class position and children's class position. Once you net out, as we can, statistically, all the effects of the structural change, that inherent, underlying stickiness shows a remarkable constancy.

  Q12  Chairman: What do you say, Stephen, to people such as Stephen Gorard who really criticises your methodology and conclusions? From my reading of the literature, I take it that he is your fiercest critic?

  Dr Goldthorpe: I do not think that Stephen has criticised my—

  Q13  Chairman: No, sorry, Dr Goldthorpe, I have moved on. Professor Gorard has fundamentally criticised the work of Stephen Machin and Jo Blanden. I was asking them. He is your most consistent critic is he not, Jo?

  Dr Blanden: Yes. I can say something about that.

  Q14  Chairman: Has he got it right or is he wrong?

  Dr Blanden: Well, we obviously think he is wrong.

  Professor Machin: With very good reason.

  Dr Blanden: With some quite good reason. He took a summary paper that we wrote in 2005 for the Trust, which was a simplification of our work. Perhaps we did not present things in the first version as clearly as we should, because we were talking about two different things: changes over time, and differences across countries. We did not lay it out clearly enough, in essence, and we responded to his comments and tried to be clearer, but the thing is that the Sutton Trust report in 2005 was a summary of a wealth of papers that we have written, and we also summarised other people's work to give that picture to the Trust. However, Professor Gorard seems to refuse to look at any of our other papers, or any other work that is behind this, and he sticks to what was said in the 2005 paper. He also criticises us for using a small sample of the cohort studies, because we have to look at only a situation involving income and earnings, and he is absolutely right that that is a concern. It is one that I looked into during my PhD. When you restrict the sample that you look at, you always have an element of doubt about whether you are misrepresenting the overall picture. One good thing that has come about from our work, looking at the issues in tandem with John Goldthorpe and Robert Erikson, is that they use a much larger sample, and when they restrict their larger sample of social class to that which we used for income, the patterns do not change, so it seems unlikely that our results are driven firmly by the restriction in sample. So, although that is a reasonable point, we do not think that it applies in this case.

  Q15  Chairman: But the data are patchy, are they not? You are not comparing like with like on data sets and the different countries that you take. Some of the countries are a bit strange, are they not? You say in one passage of your work, "major industrial countries", but many of them are Nordic countries and Canada. In this Committee, I am always happy and safer when comparing Great Britain as a 60 million population country with Germany, France, Italy and Spain. But that is not who you compare with, is it? You have the US, but many of them are quite small countries.

  Dr Blanden: I have written a chapter for a book that some colleagues at the LSE are putting together on education and income inequality. In it, I try to look more widely at where the UK fits on intergenerational income mobility, and to link it with the role of education. I do not know whether Stephen would necessarily agree with me, but if we look only at the countries from which we can get really good data, we are possibly picking countries where the UK and the US are often at the low end of mobility. For the UK and the US, that is probably broadly true, but there are probably many other countries down there, too. I would argue that France, Italy and Spain are, but that Germany is a little bit unclear.

  Q16  Chairman: Because most of your data are from West Germany, are they not?

  Dr Blanden: Yes, which does not help. If you try to look around for as much data as you can, even if they are not completely comparable, I would say that several large European countries are equally as immobile as the UK. But then there is other evidence from other sources, such as the PISA study, which show that educational opportunities in the UK are very strongly related to family background, so there is evidence on either side. We have some holes in our evidence; that is completely the case. In that particular Sutton Trust study, we picked only the countries where we had data that were quite similar, so we compared with the UK and the US, Nordic countries, which are probably fairly extreme cases.

  Professor Machin: I would add that Stephen Gorard is out on a limb in what he says, if you compare what we say with other leading experts in the area. Gary Solon is the leading US economist on intergenerational income mobility. He has written a survey piece bringing together the international evidence and he reaches very much the same conclusions as we do, by drawing on studies from different countries. However, the US and the UK are towards the bottom of the international league table for intergenerational earnings or income mobility. If you take Stephen Gorard's criticism literally, because he thinks that he has this methodological point, which is not correct, about the way in which we presented the evidence, he is actually saying that he thinks that the extent of intergenerational mobility is rather like that in Norway, and I do not think that anybody would think that that was the case.

  Q17  Chairman: Is the heart of the problem that he is attacking your truncated paper, or perhaps even the gloss that the Sutton Trust put on your research, because in a sense it did not do the research, but was making a case for other purposes?

  Professor Machin: To be fair on him, I think his observation is that the findings have been misused in certain quarters and he, therefore, is commenting on it because it is a piece of research that has received so much attention that he thinks that he should be saying something about what his position on it would be.

  Chairman: Okay. That has been some very good interpreting.

  Mr Carswell: I have three questions, if I may?

  Chairman: On something that has come up already? We are going through the questions in sections.

  Mr Carswell: Can I ask three questions at some stage?

  Chairman: If you do not repeat the questions that people have already bid to ask, yes.

  Mr Carswell: Sorry. You have been asking questions, do you want me to ask questions now?

  Chairman: Could you hold back for a moment? Let me give the people who asked to do the opening session a chance first.

  Q18  Mr Slaughter: That was a very interesting introduction. When we were talking in private before you came in, I sensed a slight frustration among some of my colleagues that some of us, like me, are statistically challenged, but probably what we are more interested in are the more political questions about whether social mobility is a good thing, and the role of education within that. In order to get to that stage, it is always useful to have a coherent and consistent statistical base. Although there appears to be some level of agreement between the various studies, that may be an unfair question. How would you reach a consensus between your views, or what points would you pick out from the studies that we have had, which would give us that clear base from which to go forward to the next stage? In other words, can you summarise what consistent findings you believe there are between the various studies that you have done? Or indeed, more controversially, do you think we should disregard points that have been made?

  Dr Goldthorpe: The first thing to say is that Stephen and Jo are looking, as we have established, at mobility in terms of income. In effect, they are comparing the earnings of children with the incomes of the families from which they came. My colleagues and I are looking at mobility in terms of social class. Those are different phenomena; there is no reason in principle why they should give exactly the same results, although of course it is interesting if results differ to try to ask why that is so. We have had a long series of exchanges, trying to work out why this is so and these occasions get rather technical—we could go into that. My own reading is that intergenerational income mobility is more subject to short-term social change than intergenerational class mobility. In the case of income mobility you can get relatively short-term changes of some magnitude, and that is related to the fact that changes in the structure of incomes, in income equality, can occur rather more quickly than changes in the shape of the class structure. However, as far as the political and policy implications of our research go, the differences are not that great.

  Professor Machin: I would tend to agree with much of what John has said. Both the social class findings and the income findings suggest that social mobility is a problem in Britain. It should therefore, have a high priority in policy debates and the fact that debates about the research are giving it a higher profile is both good and important. In response to the question about why I was interested in intergenerational mobility, I stated at the start that my interest is in labour market inequalities, income disparities across the population, and trying to ascertain whether they are too big or too small. We know that in Britain over the last 25 to 30 years, the gap between the highest and the lowest paid has widened massively, with a particularly big increase during the 1980s. The findings on social mobility suggest that this opening up of income disparities is not just restricted to people's own generation but can be tracked back to where they were born and the incomes of their parents at that point in time. That suggests that this work is even more important, as growing inequality at a point in time is reinforced across generations. When we have looked at education, we have looked at it as a transmission mechanism underpinning the extent of intergenerational social mobility. As we saw this episode of falling income mobility, we discovered that one of the key factors underpinning it was an increased sensitivity of education to family income. Basically, the expansion of education, particularly higher education (HE), that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, disproportionately benefited people from richer families. That is one of the reasons why social mobility has fallen. In terms of a policy discussion and the political debate, these issues are becoming more important than they were in the past.

  Q19  Mr Slaughter: Yes. From your comments so far it appears that there is a greater degree of consensus that I had first thought. That is good. However, the findings are rather concerning in the way that you have just indicated. In relation to the educational side of your last point, obviously one of the things that we will be concerned with is the chicken and egg aspect of education. In your view, is access to education based on social class or income a barrier, perhaps to increased social mobility, or is the way that the education system is used widening that gap? If I understood your point correctly, are you saying that what could be perceived as a widening of educational opportunity, or something that in a simplistic way may increase opportunities within income and wealth bands, may actually have had the opposite effect?

  Professor Machin: Yes, it can go either way. One easy way to think about it is that if people who benefit from the expansion of education systems come from above average income families, it reinforces the inequalities that are already there. If they come from below average income families, it will narrow the inequality that was there. It appears that the expansion of HE disproportionately benefited people from above average income families, and that has been one of the mechanisms as to why intergenerational income mobility has fallen during this period.

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