Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


23 JANUARY 2008

  Q40  Mr Carswell: Thank you; it is very generous of you, Chairman. I am looking at your 2005 and 2007 papers. You note a sharp rise in the correlation between family and common educational attainment.

  Dr Blanden: Yes.

  Q41  Mr Carswell: That suggests that more of those who are able to afford it, by buying it either directly or indirectly through buying a house in a nice catchment area, are able to buy a better education. There is less scope now than there was for bright kids from low-income backgrounds to do well in education and to be socially mobile. Does that not suggest that the comprehensive education system itself has diminished social mobility, and that the apartheid system of education in this country where 90+%. go to state schools, a tiny percentage go to independent schools, and a tiny number of children within the state system are able to go to selective schools—that the status quo itself—is diminishing social mobility?

  Dr Blanden: First, I shall say something about the grammar schools question. When we initially found the results, it was speculated that there could be a contribution from comprehensivisation, so it is a difficult question to consider. However, an interesting finding from a colleague of ours, Dr Sandra McNally, indicates that what happened over that period with grammar schools could not explain the fall in intergenerational income mobility that we find, because it exists at age 11—before grammar schools come into the picture.

  Q42  Mr Carswell: I did not actually mention grammar schools. That is a bit of a cul-de-sac of an argument, in which I have little interest. The centrally driven state-run system of education has diminished social mobility, as you say, pre-11. Do you agree?

  Dr Blanden: Diminished mobility? Stephen, do you want to come in?

  Professor Machin: It is hard to think about that, but some inequalities have arisen over time. If you look at the labour market outcomes, one feature of rising income inequality and widening income distribution has been the increasing labour market returns to education. Given a higher educational level now, people get paid more, relative to a lower educational level, than they did 25 years ago. You can break that down across different groups, but it is talking about an average return to education going up over time, so education on average is becoming more valuable in the labour market. You can break it up into different groups. One group that has done better is people who are educated in independent schools. The labour market returns to an independent, private-school, education have gone up more than they have to a state school education, so that is kind of in line with your argument. The long-term implications may well be something to do with the structural nature of the education system.

  Q43  Mr Carswell: I am interested in whether there is a relationship between diminishing social mobility and the centralisation of big Government involvement in education. My second question is that if one wants and believes that upward social mobility is good, you presumably need to try to unhook—if that is the right word—educational attainment from family income, and you therefore need, as a public policy maker, a mechanism to allow people from low-income backgrounds the choices that currently only those with money can buy. You need a mechanism whereby, rather than creating social equality by restricting choice for everyone, you allow everyone the choices that currently only the rich people have. Do you agree?

  Professor Machin: I feel that there are various dimensions to that, and various policies have been introduced to try to do precisely that: the Educational Maintenance Allowance tries to get children who would not otherwise have stayed on at school to do so; and SureStart is trying to level the playing field before children enter the primary school system. So, if you believe that education is a key driver of social mobility, such policies are targeted at people from lower-than-average-income backgrounds.

  Q44  Mr Carswell: Do you think that the Government's two recent announcements, including raising the school leaving age, will help?

  Chairman: The Government have not mentioned any such thing.

  Mr Carswell: Okay. Do you think that using a lottery to allocate places as one—

  Chairman: You can ask the first question, but do phrase it in terms of the fact that it is not raising the school leaving age, but raising the level until you leave education and training.

  Mr Carswell: Do you want to ask my questions for me?

  Chairman: No, but if you ask them in such a loaded way you make it difficult for the professor to answer.

  Mr Carswell: Can I ask my question?

  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Carswell: Thank you. Do you think that if the Government used or encouraged the use of a lottery to allocate places, as an official suggested to the Committee the other week, that would enhance or reduce social mobility?

  Professor Machin: The lottery system for school admissions is presumably to try and take away the criteria of distance in terms of that being important for school admissions. We know that one aspect of inequality that has arisen in response to distance being the main criterion for getting to school has been the selection by mortgage issue, about people buying properties at higher house prices in places where there is a better school nearby; so if you wanted to unlock that aspect of distortion in the housing market, presumably relaxing the distance criterion—one way to do which is through a lottery; it is not the only way to do it—would have the desired impact in terms of weakening the link between house prices and perceived school quality. Whether people think that is a good thing or a bad thing I do not know, but that is the key outcome that would arise. Of course, it would be going away from the traditional community school idea and you would probably be making children travel further to school, if there was a lottery to go anywhere. That might not necessarily be a good thing. There are pros and cons, I think. The key thing, in terms of reforming school admissions in that way, would be the impact on local housing markets. Of course that is an aspect of inequality that we might be interested in. It is probably something that is related to the extent of social mobility. On the first question, do you want me to answer about raising the age?

  Q45  Mr Carswell: I would like you to, if that is allowed. Would raising the age at which people leave education have an impact?

  Professor Machin: To 18? Most of the evidence from across the world suggests that when you increase compulsory school-leaving levels the level of education goes up, so that people who are compelled to stay on clearly raise their educational levels, and most of the evidence seems to suggest that that yields a labour market return to education, so making them get an extra year's education has a pay-off in the labour market. On productivity grounds, from a purely economic viewpoint, that seems to be a good thing.

  Dr Blanden: Given that those people are likely to be from poor backgrounds, you could see a knock-on impact on social mobility, because those people are getting an earnings gain relative to what they would have had before, because they are from the bottom, perhaps, of the income distribution; but I would imagine it is not going to be huge.

  Professor Machin: There is a lot of evidence from different places, so when different states in the US have raised their compulsory school-leaving ages you can compare what happens in those states with what happens in other states that do not raise their compulsory school-leaving age. In different countries the raising of the school-leaving age has been sequential, so in the Scandinavian countries, for example, different municipalities raised the age at different times, and it seems to yield labour market returns to the people who are treated, if you like, by the increased compulsory school-leaving age. You can make a productivity argument for it on those grounds.

  Q46  Mr Carswell: Thank you. I have two further questions for John, if I may. On the point that Dawn seemed to touch on, you seemed to suggest that social mobility was a zero sum game—that one person's gain necessarily means someone else's loss. Indeed, I think you said in the context of women getting highly paid jobs that men must do worse, as there are only a limited number of jobs. A number of economists have disagreed with that view since the 1770s, but do you really think that social mobility is a zero sum game? Can we not all be better off socio-economically?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Certainly we can all be socio-economically better off. I do not say that social mobility is necessarily a zero sum game. As I tried to explain, in the middle decades of the last century it was clearly a positive sum game, because as one aspect of general economic growth and development you have this expansion of professional and managerial positions growing room at the top, so you could in that case have steadily rising rates of upward mobility and, at the same time, rising rates of immobility within the more advantaged strata. What I am saying now is that we cannot expect anything like a repeat of that mid-20th century experience. That was an historical one-off that had to do with the massive growth in government and with the massive development of health, education, social welfare. Also, in the private sector, large business firms created great administrative and managerial bureaucracies. We are not going to get back to that kind of rapid and sustained growth at the top. Under such structural conditions, social mobility becomes more of a zero sum game. If you have a more or less fixed structure, there must be balance between the number upwardly mobile people and how far they go, and the number who are downwardly mobile, and how far they go. That is a kind of demographic-cum-mathematical fact.

  Chairman: Last question.

  Q47  Mr Carswell: I have just been reading a book called The Long Tail by a guy called Anderson, and I imagine that he would disagree with what you said. Finally, you said something about how the United States lacks social mobility. I respect your esteemed academic research and I am sure that you have interviewed and studied lots of Americans, but do you think the fact that tens of millions of people vote with their feet and go to America because it is an aspirational country means that at least some people disagree with you? They believe that there is some sort of upward mobility in the States.

  Dr Goldthorpe: In the period of mass emigration to the United States from Europe, America had higher rates of social mobility but they have subsequently declined. A recent large-scale study by two American economic historians brings that out. I was talking about the period from the 1950s or 1960s to the present, when American mobility came much closer to the European pattern.

  Q48  Stephen Williams: Thank you. I need to ask one question on fluidity between groups to Dr Goldthorpe. In your paper, you say that that might lead to uncomfortable policy choices or discussions for politicians say, for example, on participation in higher education. It is not in any of the papers that you have written that we have read before this sitting, but I have read elsewhere that the child of a family in the highest social class by income—broadly, the professional and managerial class, of whom many will have been to university—has an 85% chance of participating in higher education. People at the other end of the income distribution have a 13% to 15% chance, which is broadly unchanged in the past 20 years. Therefore, there is a saturation at one end, and, arguably, massive untapped potential at the other. Is your argument that politicians ought to be thinking that fewer people from the higher backgrounds should go to university so that more people from the lower background can go? Is that the sort of uncomfortable discussion that we should be having?

  Dr Goldthorpe: No, I would not want to restrict opportunity.

  Q49  Stephen Williams: You said that if some people go up, some people have to come down.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I am sorry, there is a difference. If you are talking about inequalities in educational attainment, you would not be constrained in that way. You can expand the room at the top in tertiary education. Indeed, that has been done—massively.

  Q50  Stephen Williams: But the expanded space has been filled up by people at the top of the social scale, who have benefited. Is it an inverse pyramid?

  Dr Goldthorpe: That may be something that one must live with. I do not believe that everybody will want to go into tertiary education. I am not too happy with targets such as 50% of people going into higher education. The important thing ought to be that any young person, or even older person, who wants to go into higher education, and who has the minimum capacity to benefit from it, should have the opportunity to do so. We should let the numbers be what they are, rather than setting targets. There is an important difference between social class and education and class mobility. I do not think that reducing class differentials in educational attainment can be thought of as a zero sum game. I see it more as creating a level playing field.

  Q51  Annette Brooke: May I backtrack to ensure that I am clear in my mind about some of the things that you are saying? First of all, I think I have got this bit clear, in terms of the fall in intergenerational mobility between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, Dr Goldthorpe, you said fairly clearly that a lot of that was structural because occupations have changed?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes.

  Q52  Annette Brooke: Professor Machin, in one of your conclusions you say that that fall was an episode caused by particular circumstances of the time. Do you identify the same circumstances as Dr Goldthorpe, or are they different circumstances and time periods? I apologise if this is me not reading the material thoroughly.

  Professor Machin: No, we are clearly studying the same time period and thinking about the same structural changes. The one that I would tend to emphasise would be the fact that income inequality rose a lot in Britain since the late 1970s. One way of thinking about that is that if you are going to move up the income distribution in your own generation, or indeed move down the income distribution in your own generation, you have further to travel. If the distribution is wider, to move up the distribution you have further to travel in income terms. One of the key structural changes that has occurred is that the distribution of income has got wider and the other one that we talk about in our work as a key factor is the link between education and family income. That seemed to have strengthened at the same time as we saw the fall in social mobility.

  Q53  Annette Brooke: Good, that follows on, so everybody is actually agreeing that early education is quite important in terms of final outcomes, am I correct? Dr Goldthorpe is nodding. Looking at actual policy implications, now that I have got all of that clear in my head, there are lots of statistics knocking around about children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have a fraction of the vocabulary of somebody from a more middle-class background—or a higher-income background, probably—at age three, and that is incredibly pronounced by the age of five, when the child starts school. We are clearly identifying that early years education is important. We have had massive investment since 1997 in this area. These are very early days, in terms of you making any firm conclusions about it, but I would like to ask you individually whether you have any comments on the effectiveness of the big investment in SureStart and early learning that we have had over the last 11 years?

  Professor Machin: I have already said this once, but most people tend to think that you are likely to get a bigger return on educational investments that take place early on in childhood. That is not to say that later investments do not yield a return at all, in fact quite the opposite.

  Q54  Annette Brooke: Can we home in on the effectiveness, rather than this large global sum of money? I am saying, have we spent it wisely?

  Professor Machin: It is still too early days to properly evaluate the impact of SureStart, and indeed it will be many years away before we can really do that, because we want to see whether it has long-standing effects on children when they become adults, so we want to know how important that will be. One can certainly make the argument, and it is an argument that I agree with, that the returns to early years investment are probably going to be higher than the returns to later years investment in education. Notwithstanding that, you have still got to carry on investing, because there is certainly some evidence from the US to say that some pre-school investments do have an impact on children's outcomes, although they tend to decay as children enter their schooling years and particularly their teenage years. Some of them are actually not that long-standing, so that still suggests that you have to be doing things later on. In terms of SureStart itself and the logic for it, you can compare it with what has happened in the comparable policy in the US that was introduced many years before—Head Start. Head Start seems to have had some long-standing effects, particularly on outcomes like crime. Individuals who received benefits from Head Start seem to be much less likely to participate in crime than people who did not receive it, as teenagers and as young adults. It is too early days, but I would argue that it is probably the right logic to think about intervening early because many of the inequalities you see by age 16, when people are deciding whether to stay on at school or not, or even by five when they enter school, many of the inequalities are already in place there. Many of them widen out during the school years, but the foundations of them are set in place early on, I think.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I agree with Stephen that it is too early to make any definitive assessment. My reading of the evidence on pre-school programmes generally is that they work if they are high value, and that means if they are fairly expensive. You have to make a big investment. If they are not high value and high quality, there is evidence of wash-out effects. They have an initial impact but it is not sustained. SureStart was a very good idea in principle. I have some worries, and I know that they are shared by quite a few people, about the way in which it is developing. It was developing primarily into a kind of child care programme. If that is so, it worries me that one is not getting the targeting on those children who have the greatest need for it, those children whose parents are perhaps not as educationally aware and supportive as they might be. I see the difficulty here in that there was a concern not to stigmatise these families by focusing SureStart too sharply on them, but it would be a danger if the families who benefited most from SureStart were not those in greatest need of the kind of support that it can give. I hope that that can be looked at. My general position on this is that I would agree with what Jo and Stephen said: fundamentally the most effective interventions are those in the pre-school and early primary school years, but to be successful they have to be high quality and therefore expensive. The kind of intervention that I am thinking about at 16 plus could be rather more cost-effective because EMAs are not all that expensive compared with the cost of SureStart programmes. I would like to see more research being done on why there is this loss of talent aged 16, and whether EMAs could be developed and sharpened up somewhat to try to remedy that. There is real potential here that could be achieved at a relatively low cost.

  Q55  Annette Brooke: I have one brief question. I know that this is strictly speaking out of your particular fields, but if any of this is going to mean anything we need evaluation of all these different policies. In your general reading across all this—

  Chairman: Who is this directed at?

  Annette Brooke: Both. One at a time. In your view is there sufficient evaluation going on out there, albeit at Government or university level, on these programmes?

  Dr Goldthorpe: No.

  Chairman: Stephen?

  Professor Machin: It is getting better, but it is still not enough. There are more serious evaluations of lots of the initiatives that have been introduced more recently, particularly education initiatives. But we could do with more and we could do with some better designed experiments to try to evaluate certain educational initiatives as well.

  Chairman: Jo Blanden?

  Dr Blanden: I agree with Stephen. The Centre for the Economics of Education, which we are both members of, has been involved in evaluating a number of these policy interventions, like Excellence in Cities, the literacy hour and EMAs. We are building up a larger base of knowledge of how to go about evaluating policies. That has been greatly helped by the fact that we have been given more data in recent years to do that. We certainly would not want to go backwards at all.

  Q56  Chairman: Have you seen some of the early research on SureStart? One of the problems was that it was left to local communities to design their own. Some of them did not hit the proper targets because so much emphasis was placed on local design.

  Professor Machin: Some of the initial evidence that I have seen was that in places where it worked well it tended to be hijacked by the middle classes who used all the facilities, and in places where it was not designed so well and was left to local decision making and stuff, people did not really take advantage of it.

  Chairman: Does that not put a big question mark over the local example? I am not getting any response at all. Annette, I am moving on to David.

  Q57  Mr Chaytor: I want to ask Professor Machin and Dr Blanden about the way in which their initial report was picked up by a wide range of people. To what extent do you think that your evidence or conclusions were hijacked and distorted by this interest?

  Professor Machin: I do not think that "hijacked" is quite right.

  Dr Blanden: No, I don't think so.

  Professor Machin: We wrote a report for the Sutton Trust summarising our findings. Part of the misuse of our work was because we had to write a very short summary, rather than a long academic paper that covered every possible caveat, robustness checks and so on. The summary piece was very short and it was then used by people in different ways who gave it different interpretations. One of the key things about the work is that it has received so much attention that it must be something that people find very interesting, relevant and innovative. In some senses, we did the research, and then it has gone to a secondary stage where people use the research. Unlike a lot of academic research, this has been used by many different people—practitioners, policy makers and so on. In some senses, however, it is true of all research that people will still put their own interpretation on the findings that emerge.

  Q58  Mr Chaytor: But when you became aware that politicians and other public commentators were giving it a specific interpretation, and actually making no reference to the issue of the structural change in the economy between the early 1950s and perhaps up to the 1974 oil price crisis, did you make any effort to challenge the interpretations that were made?

  Professor Machin: We have written a series of papers on the issue that look at different but related questions, and we clarify what we have done in those papers. We have written some survey pieces: we have a survey chapter in a book that I edited, where we discuss more generally what the findings suggest and place them in a much wider context. The research is still ongoing for us because we are still very interested. One of the things that I said on the three pieces of work we have done thus far, was that we are very interested in trying to learn what we can say about more recent patterns of change in intergenerational mobility. That is what concerns us from a policy perspective: the children currently going through the education system, and what social mobility will be like for them when they become adults. We are trying to think about ways in which the academic work could be developed in that direction.

  Dr Blanden: One of the reasons we have done a more recent report—although we are a bit limited in what we know because the children are still in school—is to find out what has happened for cohorts post 1970. We were interested in doing that so that people were not using older results to extrapolate in a way that was not justified. You cannot prevent people from doing that, you can say it is wrong but they will carry on until you give them something new to say. That is something that we were very conscious of. The debate that we have had with John, and the way that we have thought about the interactions between income mobility and social class mobility is, to my mind, a good example of how academic debate can move things forward and help us to understand how different perspectives can give slightly different findings. We have been very open to that.

  Q59  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask all of you, from your distinct academic perspectives, what conclusions about educational policy we can draw from this? We have talked about SureStart, we have talked about EMAs and the expansion of higher education, but what conclusions do you draw in terms of the structure of schooling, both primary and secondary—the relative merits of hierarchical structures as against flatter structures?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Hierarchical or flatter in terms of educational systems?

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