Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


23 JANUARY 2008

  Q20  Mr Slaughter: In relation to that, have you drawn any conclusion as to whether it is consumer or producer pressure? Is it the way that the education system has changed that has given more advantage to people who are already advantaged, or is it down to people who have more ability and resources? I was reading The Times lead story on my way here. The Leader of the Opposition is advocating that feigning religious conviction is an acceptable way for active citizens, as he put it, to find their way into voluntary aided schools. That is a populist view of the situation, but which side has the pressure come from?

  Professor Machin: It is very clear that people from richer backgrounds took advantage of the expansion of HE. However, the problem is not HE per se—you must track such things back to earlier in the schooling system and, indeed, to the early years pre-school. That is where the inequalities are set in the first instance. You see the outcome in HE, but clearly what happens before matters. Lots of things that are happening in schools—primary and secondary—and pre-school matter.

  Dr Goldthorpe: Could I add something else that is relevant to the question? We have been doing research on what happens at around age 16. I entirely agree with Stephen that what happens before that is extremely important. However, age 16 is important as well. As you realise, children at that stage face rather crucial educational decisions. Do you leave school or stay on? What do you do in the educational system if you stay on? Do you go on to do A-levels with a view to university entry, or do you take more vocational courses? We have found that social class background plays an important part in making those educational decisions. If you take children who perform equally well in GCSEs, you find that, holding constant their demonstrated level of academic ability, children from more advantaged class backgrounds, such as those from professional and managerial families, are clearly more likely to go on to take A-levels than children from working-class families. That is most marked in children at around an average or somewhat above average level of performance. Obviously, the real high fliers tend to go on, and the people who do very poorly tend not to go on, more or less regardless of class background. For the swathe of people in the middle or just above the middle, however, educational choice is very much influenced by class background. There is obviously a very serious wastage of talent, human potential and human resources, and we need to know more about it.

  Q21  Mr Slaughter: I have just two questions about that. I could not agree more that it is a problem, but do you think that the situation has materially changed? A generation or so ago, when less post-16 education was available, by quantity, quality and variety, you would find that the problem was much more identifiable—a relatively small cohort went to university, in particular. That has definitely changed. Are you saying that it has had little effect on people's choices? If that is right to some extent, do you think that the Government have been wrong to focus a lot of their attention on the pre-school age—I am thinking of SureStart and other such programmes—rather than on the key decisions that people take in their later careers?

  Dr Goldthorpe: I agree with what Stephen said. Educational expansion per se is neutral, as it were, in its impact on greater equality of educational opportunity or attainment—it depends who takes up the greater opportunities. My own interpretation—I have reported such findings—is that material constraints are very important. If you are a young person who has done reasonably but not outstandingly well at GCSE level, and you think that you have a good chance of getting A-levels and a degree, but you are not absolutely sure, you face a risky situation. You would have to decide what to do. If your parents are professional managerial people, you can look forward to a certain amount of financial support as you go through. Even if you do not make it, there could be some continuing support. Professional and managerial incomes tend to rise with age up to about the 50s, so professional and managerial parents can often support their children in higher education without any reduction in their own standard of living. Compare that with a child who comes from a manual, wage-earning background. The risks of going on are much greater. They might go on and incur a certain amount of debt. Their parents are less able to help them, and when they are at university they may be torn between accumulating more debt and taking paid work. We know that students who take paid work while at university are more likely to fail or drop out. The whole decision is much riskier for children from less advantaged backgrounds, so I do not find it altogether surprising that even when you hold demonstrated academic ability constant, there are differences in the choices that people make. From that point of view, I very much welcome the introduction of education maintenance allowances. They were a move in the right direction, but I would like them to be rather more focused than they are at the moment. I have to say that I had doubts about the Government's policy on tuition fees. I would have much preferred a graduate tax.

  Q22  Mr Heppell: I am not quite sure that I am getting my head around this; I think I was confused when we started. You seem to be saying that there is no difference between the outcomes of your research and that they are very close to each other, but my reading is that they are very different. Professor Machin and Dr Blanden, you seem to be saying that the implication of your research is that there should be more interventions at an early age, in terms of educational attainment, with programmes such as SureStart to help deprived children. However, you say in your paper, Dr Goldthorpe, that that sort of policy is almost negative. I may have misinterpreted what you said, but you make the point that Labour's objectives on patterns of social mobility cannot be achieved through education.

  Dr Goldthorpe: Oh no, not at all.

  Q23  Mr Heppell: Okay, perhaps I have misinterpreted you. You have said that there is a pronounced similarity between your work. In your 2007 paper, you said that the similarity was related to longer-term patterns in mobility and that further work needed to be done on that. Can you explain what you mean?

  Dr Goldthorpe: I am not sure exactly to which statement you are referring. In my latest paper, the main point I was concerned to make was that we are in a far less benign structural environment than we were in the middle decades of the 20th century when we had steadily growing room at the top. Now, we cannot rely on that kind of structural change to carry through steadily rising rates of upward mobility. If we want to keep rates of upward social mobility rising, we will have to do that by reducing what I call the inherent stickiness between the class positions of parents and their children. One way of doing that is through educational policies, but the point I was making was that if you increase upward mobility by reducing that inherent stickiness, you will increase downward mobility by exactly the same extent. Politicians have to face that fact.

  Q24  Chairman: Is that not also happening with women against men?

  Dr Goldthorpe: That is a complicating factor. Yes, even if we increase opportunities for women, as I believe we should, there is only a fixed amount of higher-level positions. In the past, you could say women were not punching their weight in this regard; now increasingly they are, so there are greater problems for men. The point is this. In a lot of political discussion, increasing social mobility—usually, implicitly, increasing upward mobility—and increasing equality of opportunity are very attractive ideas to politicians. They are rather like motherhood and apple pie; it is difficult to be against them. However, there will be a downside, which will have to be taken on board. If you increase upward mobility, such as through education measures, and weaken the inherent stickiness between parental class position and children's class position, by the same token you must increase downward mobility.

  Dr Blanden: I just want to help to clarify a few of the things that you were talking about a few moments ago. You seemed to be raising two issues. One was that Stephen had said that we should be focusing on early years, whereas John was developing the idea that there were two groups of individuals with the same achievement at school and they were taking different decisions. The point that Stephen was making was feeding into the difference in achievement at the end of school, so there are two things going on here. If you come out of school with the same qualifications, income at 16 or social class at 16 would matter. However, you are not that likely to come out of school, if you are from different income or social class backgrounds, with the same qualifications, because of the inequalities that are occurring in the school system and even before that. There is a debate going on in economics, social policy and sociology about where the best place to intervene is: on balance, which of those two issues is the larger? Is this about what happens before you leave school, or is it about the decisions you take afterwards? That is where the EMA fits in and the debate about the best way to fund higher education. I think that both are important. If you neglect the earlier one, you will have much larger problems at 16, whereas if you do not even consider the fact that people respond differently even if they have the same attainment at 16, you will see the problem that John is talking about manifested. You were also saying that you saw fundamental differences in our results on the trend in mobility. That is probably correct in some ways. I would like to say a couple of things about that. Say we were talking about some measure of underlying permanent income that governs all the investments that parents are able to make when children are growing up. For social class and our income measures of mobility to move in the same way, you would have to believe that they were equally correlated with this underlying thing, which was what you thought was very important. One of the reasons we believe these two results are different is that we think—in fact, John and I both think this—that the relationship between the concept that we have chosen, or the concept that the other person has chosen, and the underlying thing that governs investments and all these things has changed. We would argue that John's focus on looking at fathers' social class in childhood has perhaps a changing relationship with these permanent characteristics, partly because of the fact that mothers' interventions will be more important—what mother does, whether she works and what her occupation is. The relationship between that and permanent income will change, and that is not taken into account by John's work. Also, over a period when inequality is increasing both between and within social classes in terms of permanent income, we think that that will affect the differences in our results as well. John thinks that perhaps the measure of current income that we use because we do not have a good measure of permanent income has a different correlation with permanent income in the two periods that we choose. There are differences, but John is saying that whether things are constant or have changed, we still have a problem on our hands. There has been other work by sociologists in a new book, to which John has contributed, by Richard Breen. I was having a read of it, and he identifies the fact that, in recent years, relative class mobility—the stickiness that John talks about—seems to have improved in a lot of other European countries, whereas in the UK it is pretty constant. Relative to other countries, even if nothing much has changed in social class in the UK, that may indicate that we still have an issue to consider.

  Professor Machin: This is the critical thing, I think, in comparing the two sets of findings. As economists, we say that a pound today is the same as a pound was 30 years ago, even though it does not buy you as much. Income is comparable over time. Social class of father's occupation is less comparable over time, so you are not quite comparing like with like, for the reasons that Jo has given. Mothers are much more important these days. The male breadwinner model that might be used to justify fathers' occupations is much less credible than it used to be. So you can reconcile why the results are giving you different findings in short-run comparisons. The other point is that, even just considering fathers' occupations, the labour market treats those occupations very differently now from 30 years ago. Income or earnings within almost all the social class, father's occupation groups has widened. You are not comparing the same things over time if you examine father's occupation social class, whereas income is at least broadly comparable over time. On the other hand, we do not have the measure of permanent income and lifetime income that we would like; we have snapshot measures of income, which we hope are strongly correlated to permanent income, but for some people they might not be. We may be catching some people, at the point when they respond to a survey, in a low-income period even though they are high-income people. That causes a little bias in the results that we get.

  Dr Blanden: I think—

  Chairman: Sorry, we are going to move on, because everyone likes to get their questions in.

  Mr Heppell: I wish to ask a question that leads on from that subject.

  Chairman: A very quick one, John.

  Q25  Mr Heppell: It will be quick.

    You seem to be giving us a lot of reasons why the two sets of figures do not completely stack together. From our point of view as policy makers, which should we give more credence to—the economic analysis, with its bumps, or the social analysis?

  Dr Goldthorpe: It depends, I think, on what you are ultimately interested in. If you are interested in things like consumption patterns, you should look at income. You can spend income, you cannot spend social class. I would argue that, if you are interested in a range of life chances, class is generally more consequential than income. A report by the Office for National Statistics came out a few weeks ago, on social inequalities in adult male mortality, using the same class schema that we use. It showed massive differences. Class is making a difference to life chances in a quite literal sense. I also argue, although Stephen and Jo might not agree, that the link between parental class and children's educational attainment is stronger than the link between family income and children's educational attainment. I think that I will be able to show that within a few months. So it depends what you want.

  Chairman: This is developing into a really high-class and very interesting meeting. In passing, I noticed something that you said and I thought I ought to put on the record that I thought the Jackson and Marsden research many years ago—in the early 1960s?—showed that the relationship between mothers and the educational attainment of children was vital; much more important than the men. It is an old piece of research, but it made me think that people had discovered this point an awfully long time ago. The research was carried out in Huddersfield, incidentally.

  Q26  Mr Stuart: I am finding this fascinating, but difficult to get my head round. To return briefly to the Gorard attack, or critique, of your findings, you mentioned table 1 in your 2005 paper. After his criticisms, you cited other broader evidence to back your point; in particular you cited Jantti et al. When Gorard checked that evidence, he said that he was unsurprised—as you can tell, he is a pretty permanent critic of yours—to find that Jantti did not say the same as you, but concluded that the United Kingdom bears a closer resemblance to the Nordic countries than to the United States. I do not want to carry on this academic war for too long.

  Chairman: I think that we should enunciate it.

  Mr Stuart: Do you think that it has been done to death?

  Chairman: No. Do you want to come back on that point?

  Professor Machin: We can. To move away from our findings, I tend to be in line with Gary Solon's interpretation of international evidence. You have got to ask whether Britain looks like the Nordic countries in terms of income inequality, how egalitarian the education systems are and so on. You have to make a judgement call yourselves on that matter. I think that it is simply not right that they are similar.

  Q27  Fiona Mactaggart: So are you saying that we do not need your work, if we have to make a judgement call ourselves?

  Professor Machin: No, I was trying to move the discussion away from our work and say that there is independent evidence from elsewhere that is very much in line with our findings. I stand by our findings. I think that they are right.

  Dr Goldthorpe: If you look at cross-national comparisons of class mobility, Britain is not bottom, but in a mediocre position. We are not Derby County, but are more like Southampton. The Chelseas, Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds that are right up at the top, with the greatest class mobility, are undoubtedly the Nordic countries.

  Q28  Chairman: But they are funny little countries—especially Finland.

  Dr Goldthorpe: Funny little countries can, in some ways, set us some examples. Down at the bottom would be places like Germany—still—and Italy. France is quite interesting. It was pretty low down, but is one of the countries where fluidity within the class structure has clearly been increasing. It is something of a mystery as to why that is. Broadly, our findings on this matter are in line with that assessment. I would not put Britain at the bottom, but in a low to middling position. Incidentally, the idea that the United States is the great land of opportunity is a complete myth.

  Q29  Mr Stuart: Yes. Following on from that, basically you are saying that the social mobility of the late-20th century was due, essentially, to structural change and an increase in opportunities higher up the ladder, rather than to any great increase in social fluidity. There has been a closing of those opportunities since the great post-war surge. Your evidence, disputed though it is, would suggest that we have stayed fairly static in terms of social mobility and social fluidity, which is about the symmetrical up and down movement between classes. There is some suggestion that there are higher rates in other countries. Is that a fair summary? Some questions that we, as policy makers, need to ask are whether that matters and whether we should be focusing less on social mobility and fluidity and more on educational attainment. The Government's main focus, to be fair to them, is on getting people up to certain grades at certain levels so that everybody gets a decent education and the opportunities that come with that. In a sense, it is up to them whether their social and cultural environment and upbringing drives them to be more or less ambitious in terms of class or income.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I would agree with you. I think that it is a mistake to review education and educational policy purely on instrumental terms. It should not rely solely on what it will contribute to people getting ahead and getting on, and being socially mobile. There are two strong arguments for why I would like to see greater social mobility and fluidity. One argument is from the standpoint of social justice. It is important that every child should have as good an opportunity as he or she possibly can to develop their potentialities to the fullest extent.

  Q30  Mr Stuart: If you look at it from the traditional left-wing perspective of a working-class party such as Labour has been, why should you dictate, from your middle-class academic eyrie, what the aspirations and outcomes should be for children, as long as the state ensures that they get a decent education as of right, and that they and their families make choices about where they want to go? Why should everyone go into higher education because you say so, if they and their families do not want them to?

  Dr Goldthorpe: You mistake me. I am not trying to dictate to them at all. I am simply concerned that they should have the widest possible range of choice. It is then, of course, up to them what choices they make. The second argument for more social mobility is from the standpoint of social efficiency. It is important that any country makes the fullest possible use of its human resources. If you have a society in which there are rather arbitrary limits on what people can achieve, simply as a result of the accident of their birth, that is not a good situation for economic success or the success of society more generally. It worries me how much talent we see simply being wasted.

  Professor Machin: I was going to use similar logic, and talk about the waste-of-talent argument. I would make that argument on the basis of economic efficiency. If some talented people would be far more productive in the labour market if they were given the opportunity to get through to higher levels of education, for example—it does not necessarily have to be education, it could also be working in the job market, in terms of who is hired by particular kinds of employers—national productivity could rise because those people with high levels of ability and talent are able to fulfil those levels. If we think that we have low levels of social mobility which is stopping people moving up the ladder as much as they could or should do, you can make an argument for economic efficiency.

  Q31  Mr Stuart: I suppose I was trying to identify the fact that it is about educational outcomes, so the Government need to deliver the groundings in a way that they have not done so far. We know that at six-years-old, or at very early ages, you can determine the educational outcomes of a child if they do not make early progress. So, targeting additional resources, skills, or any structural change necessary, in order to ensure that children from the poorest, least advantaged backgrounds get a decent basic education, is what you can do materially to provide them with that opportunity.

  Professor Machin: We are not necessarily talking about people with higher or frustrated levels of talent because they do not get to realise their potential. We are still talking about people who could even just stay on after the compulsory school leaving age, who do not these days, for reasons that are set in place earlier on in the system. It does not apply only to people going to university or FE colleges. It applies to people who are even leaving school and getting Level 2 vocational qualifications, for which they do not seem to receive a return from employers. Those kind of investments need to be sharpened so that the potential of those people with talent, who are not currently allowed to go through, can be realised.

  Q32  Ms Butler: My word, this throws up so many questions. I am not sure that I agree with Dr Goldthorpe that upward mobility also increases downward mobility. If there are more jobs at the top, as Leitch says there will be, how would that be the case? I do not want you to get into that matter though, I simply wanted to make that statement.

  Mr Stuart: You have to let him answer.

  Ms Butler: As Professor Machin just touched on this, if we are to compete on the global market, as we know that we must, do you think that the Government's direction with regard to the Children's Plan, the Education Bill and Diplomas will help to resolve this stickiness that you have talked about and the social inequalities? Do you think that those measures are part of a solution to the problem?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Your first point is really a logical issue. If you reduce the stickiness between parents' and children's class position, it must mean that you increase mobility in every direction. That follows on logically and mathematically.

  Q33  Chairman: But Dawn was saying that they might be getting jobs in New York or Paris. This is not a UK-bound economy.

  Dr Goldthorpe: They could indeed be moving elsewhere, and we know that that is increasingly happening. In modern economies it is important to ensure that we have an adequately trained and skilled work force if we are going to compete globally. Ed Miliband put it to me that something like Say's law, which is known by economists, may operate here. Supply may create its own demand. If we have a very highly qualified work force, that may, in the global context, attract higher-level professional and managerial positions to this country. That is a valid point. The operation of that process may just help us to keep the existing proportion of higher-level positions rather than leading to any substantial increase in it. On the question of government policy on qualifications and schools, I am rather sceptical about how far diversifying school types is likely to help with the problem of social mobility. It may have advantages in other respects. I do not see it contributing very much to social mobility. For example, I remain sceptical about what can be achieved in this direction by Academies and specialist or faith schools. We need much more research on the effects of such schools. In the case of Academies, it is too limited to look at only whether Academies are improving the performance of the children within them. You have to look at what is happening to other schools in the Academy's catchment area. That is absolutely crucial. David Blunkett had some very good observations on that point in the report that he has just produced.

  Q34  Chairman: John, is your view on diversity based on research, or is it just a view that you have?

  Dr Goldthorpe: It is based not on my research, but on research that other people have carried out. The research looks at those areas of the country in which grammar schools exist alongside comprehensives. If you look at the overall performance of those areas, you focus not just on the grammar schools, but on the whole school system in that area. Generally, the overall level of performance is not as good as it is in areas in which there are no selective schools. Although the Academies are still in the very early stages, my worry is that something of the same kind could happen. If you put a lot of resources into one school in an area and make it a better school, parents in that area will want to get their children into that school. The more educationally aware and ambitious parents succeed in that, which then increases the performance of that school. However, I want to know what happens to other schools in the same catchment area.

  Chairman: May we come back to Dawn's second question or she will blame me for diverting you?

  Q35  Ms Butler: I have forgotten what my second question was. I will ask a completely different question. In your 2007 paper, you talked about non-cognitive factors and how they may be becoming more determinant in people's employment prospects Can you explain that?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes. We hear a lot of talk about a knowledge-based economy. In one sense that is true and we certainly need a cadre of highly qualified professional and technical personnel to service that economy, but if you look at the statistics of where the real growth in employment is, it tends to be in the services sector, especially in sales and personal services. In that area, many positions even at a high level do not make enormous demands on cognitive ability. Obviously, they require a basic level of literacy and numeracy, but in personal services and sales a whole range of non-cognitive attributes become important, such as social and communication skills and even personal and lifestyle characteristics.

  Q36  Ms Butler: But does not that mean that non-cognitive behaviour can get you through the door, but for progression up the career ladder, non-cognitive behaviour will only take you so far? You would need to back it up by being able to do the job.

  Dr Goldthorpe: It does mean that. It also means—here is another interesting finding about education and social mobility that we have come up with—that high levels of education are crucial for working-class children who want to make it into the professional and managerial salariat. If you look at children who were born into the professional and managerial salariat who do not do all that well educationally, they often do not come down to any great extent, because they have other resources. They exploit the kind of soft skills and personal characteristics that they acquired not through schools and colleges but from being socialised in their families and communities to make their way—often in managerial positions in the services sector. If, for example, you are selling high-value real estate, cars of marque or high-value fashion, you do not need a PhD in chemical engineering. It is much more important that you are on the same wavelength as your clients and customers. The whole notion of meritocracy becomes very problematic here.

  Q37  Chairman: You mean that you have to be as crass as your customers?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Those soft skills and personal characteristics have real productive value, and employers in that field realise that.

  Q38  Ms Butler: So, you agree that Diplomas in non-cognitive skills would be useful?

  Dr Goldthorpe: This is a very interesting question. Can one really train people in those soft skills and lifestyle characteristics in the same way that one can train people in cognitive or technical skills? The jury is still out on that. The point that I am really making is that many children from more advantaged backgrounds just have those skills through their socialisation. It is more of a problem for other children, I agree.

  Q39  Ms Butler: I disagree—what you have just touched on is individual. An individual from a more advantaged background would not necessarily have better cognitive skills than someone from a less-advantaged background, because people from less-advantaged backgrounds have to be more inventive to survive in life. Anyway, I wanted to end by telling the African proverb that if you teach a woman, you educate a village. That probably came way before any academic economist.

  Mr Carswell: I have four questions for Stephen and Jo, and two for John.

  Chairman: Get on with it.

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