Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-80)


23 JANUARY 2008

  Q60  Mr Chaytor: In terms of the schooling system. You commented on diversity and expressed some scepticism about that with regard to an increase in social mobility.

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes.

  Q61  Mr Chaytor: I am interested in the issue of hierarchy, of a system of primary schools and secondary schools that are structured in a hierarchical and highly selective way. What conclusions do you draw from that? Secondly, do you think there is any relevance to the issue of social mobility in the system of testing and assessment we have? That is the subject of another inquiry that the Committee is involved in at the moment. Do you think that an intensive testing system in which certain groups of children are repeatedly failed has any relationship to the level of social mobility or not? That question is for Dr Goldthorpe, to start with.

  Dr Goldthorpe: On testing, I have to say that I have not done research in this area and I am not very expert about consequences of it. My gut feeling, for what it is worth, is that testing has become overdone, and there is evidence that exposing children to the possibility of repeated failure is not good for their academic confidence and performance. On school systems, I generally favour comprehensive systems. If we go back to considering the Nordic countries, accepting that they are quite small and perhaps peculiar countries, they do have fairly well developed comprehensive systems and there is some evidence that that has played a part in the fact that they have lower class differentials in educational attainment than we have in this country. That is comprehensive education combined with what in British parlance we would call fairly extensive setting at older ages. That seems to me the best way of avoiding the essential arbitrariness of earlier selection, while still making adequate provision for children of differing aptitudes in different directions. In general, I am in favour of what you call flatter rather than more hierarchical educational systems.

  Professor Machin: On one aspect of the hierarchy, there is some evidence that countries that have earlier tracking in the education system have higher educational inequalities. Germany is a very clear example. They track at age 11 into the three—

  Q62  Mr Chaytor: Earlier tracking—earlier selection?

  Dr Blanden: Yes. Selection.

  Professor Machin: Yes. Putting people on a track at an earlier age. There is evidence that that leads to educational inequalities, largely because people are not able to move across tracks very much, so that is having some impact on mobility in the early years and then subsequently—

  Q63  Chairman: Decreasing or increasing?

  Professor Machin: It increases inequalities, because it restricts people to being on a particular track. On the testing regimes, I do not know of any evidence that particularly links the presence of a national testing regime to aspects of social mobility. You could make theoretical arguments either way, I would have thought. If everybody takes the same national tests, that is at least levelling the playing field so that everybody has the potential to do quite well, rather than selecting people according to certain examinations that they may or may not take, which was the old system, certainly for O-levels rather than GCSEs. If we want to make the talent argument and if people are not constrained by other things, presumably letting everybody have a go is quite a good thing. Whether that is placing much more stress on people from different social backgrounds is an open question. Again, I do not know. I do not know of any research that has looked at that in any detail and I cannot quite work out how you would be able to do very good research on that question, notwithstanding the fact that it is an important question. It is not one I know much about myself.

  Dr Blanden: I just wanted to follow on from the testing point. High-stakes testing throughout the schooling system may encourage parents to exercise their choices more at an earlier age. To that extent, it could be associated with selection by postcode. It could be promoting that to a certain extent, but that is only a theoretical thought that I had just as Stephen was speaking.

  Q64  Mr Chaytor: May I ask one other question? It relates to your conclusion about the impact of access to the expanded higher education system being disproportionately monopolised by young people from middle-class families. Surely the real test of the value of an expanded HE sector will come only when we see the entry into the job market of a broader base of HE entrants. Inevitably, when the system expanded from the mid-1980s, it was the group of middle-class young people who had done quite well at school but had not previously gone into HE who gobbled up the opportunities, because they were best placed to do so. Surely we will have to wait until the post-1997 cohort, which is a much wider social base of graduates, enters the labour market to see whether the expansion has had any significant effect on social mobility. Is it not too early to say whether there is an effect?

  Professor Machin: I would mostly agree. Some of the cohorts who benefited from it in the early stages entered the labour market, but to evaluate the whole expansion, yes, we probably need to wait a while.

  Q65  Mr Chaytor: So when do you think we will have reliable data about the real effect on social mobility of a significantly expanded HE system?

  Dr Goldthorpe: The next cohort after the 1970 one is the 2000 one, so we will be in the 2020s before we can see that. But something could be done if those running the General Lifestyle Module (GLM), formerly the General Household Survey, could be persuaded to reintroduce questions that would help us with social mobility. They would not have to do it every year, just once every three or five years. Another thing that is very important in Government statistics generally is that we need to break down the unitary category of tertiary education or degree. I know that would be invidious and create problems, but we have to recognise that as tertiary education has expanded it has become increasingly stratified. We need to make some distinction between different levels of university, however controversial that might be—say, Oxbridge, Russell Group and then so-called modern universities, with whatever is in between. One could discuss that. We also need to collect information on the subject areas in which people get degrees, because it is clear that returns to higher education, whether in earnings or social class, will become increasingly variable. If we want to evaluate the outcome of the expansion of tertiary education, we must treat it in a far more differentiated way than hitherto.

  Q66  Mr Chaytor: So in respect of the changes necessary to the GLM to provide the kind of evidence that you need to draw significant conclusions, is there an agreed set of questions that you or other academics have argued for? One of the most saddening things about the background papers was the change in 1993, which took out the question of social background. Should that be restored?

  Dr Goldthorpe: There is a big difference. With the birth cohort studies, there are standing committees of academics to discuss the questions. With the GLM, we have little input—at least, as far as I know, not of any formalised kind.

  Q67  Mr Chaytor: Who determines the questions that go into it?

  Dr Goldthorpe: The Office for National Statistics, and various Government Departments can—

  Q68  Mr Chaytor: This is a highly politically charged issue, is it not? The questions that are being asked are not delivering the relevant answers that academics need to assess the impact of Government policy.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I tried very hard to find out why they stopped collecting the relevant data in 1993, and I have never been able to get a satisfactory answer. It may just have been an accident.

  Q69  Chairman: So would you academics like it reinstituted? Would you like this Committee to recommend that that kind of data be reinstituted?

  Dr Goldthorpe: Yes please.

  Professor Machin: That is of direct relevance to John's work, and I concur—it would be a good thing. It would be of high practical relevance to John's work on social class.

  Q70  Fiona Mactaggart: I have found the papers that we have looked at very hard, which is relevant to the discussion. The things that I know about statistics I mostly read in a book published in 1954 that has been read by 1.5 million other people, by Darrell Huff, called How to Lie With Statistics. His first chapter relates to the built-in bias in a sample. He refers to the 1924 class of Yale graduates who earned $25,111 a year. He pointed out that in that group of people, those who earned the least had fallen out so that the stayers were likely to be higher earners. He pointed out that it was not clear from the way the questions were asked what the difference was between salary and other income. He also suggested, with some evidence, that you cannot trust people when they report income. Every single point seems to be relevant to your work, but is not addressed in it.

  Professor Machin: All the things you said are part of our day to day research. We have to face all such questions when we analyse survey data and look at who responded to the survey—whether they are people in the labour market, employers or consumers. Those are the kinds of things that we have to look at when we do quantitative statistical research. We are very aware of all of those points. We spend a lot of time in our research papers concentrating on whether our samples are representative, whether there is a measurement error in people's responses to the survey, what the framing of the questions is and whether the questions are framed in the same way across cohorts or whether there are discrepancies in the way questions are asked. We look at all that and many other minute details when we do research. Things have moved on since the 1950s. We have various statistical techniques for dealing with issues such as measurement error.

  Q71  Fiona Mactaggart: But these are very specific measurement errors. They are not classic measurement error. Such errors will produce bias in your results.

  Professor Machin: They may produce bias.

  Q72  Fiona Mactaggart: They will, because we know that the people who fall out of these long cohort studies are absolutely most likely to be the least prosperous. The 2,000 missing people from the figures in 1958 are likely to be the poorest. The odds on that are massive.

  Professor Machin: Yes, we know that. I would not have said that the odds were massive. We have various tables in various papers that we have written in which we start with a full sample. We work down on the sample restrictions that we make to end up with the sample that we look at. Inevitably, people are lost. Even when people respond to a survey, some do not answer all the questions. If we use a sample of x thousand people out of an initial sample of y thousand, it is very important to say how we have got from the representative sample of y thousand down to x thousand. We spend a lot of time in our research being very careful about that. It is true that it is more of an issue in some data sets than other data sets. In certain papers, we write with different data sets and we have to look at that. That is something that we are very aware of in our research and we have to very rigorous about it. We have to assess the robustness of our results. Sure, people can lie with statistics. They can also tell very representative stories about what is going on as well.

  Q73  Fiona Mactaggart: Do not think that I am accusing you of intending to lie. What I am concerned about is this whole business of the conversation between politicians and researchers. The conversation is, in my view, a pathetic one. The only politician who is cited in any of this work—apart from quoting politicians who quote you—is Dr Goldthorpe's reference to Ed Miliband looking at some of his data. It seems to me that there is a failure to converse and a failure to understand, which leads politicians sometimes to lay greater weight on some of your conclusions than perhaps even you would. Of course, you want people to use your conclusions. That is quite important if you are going out looking for research grants from elsewhere. Partly because of this conversation failure, we can be wrong about what the data show. I heard David Cameron cite your work to imply that, under the Labour Government, social mobility had massively reduced, which nobody who has read it carefully would claim. Am I right?

  Dr Blanden: Yes. In fact, I was involved with the Channel 4 spotting of mistakes—I am not sure what it is called—and picking up on Cameron's exact quote and trying to set it right. We do try—that is the best we can say. That is why we have tried to follow it up. In terms of attrition and measurement error, we are okay if neither of those things change substantially between the two cohorts. To a certain extent, we can never know absolutely if those things have not changed.

  Q74  Fiona Mactaggart: Exactly; you have to guess. There is no magic way.

  Dr Blanden: It is not guessing.

  Professor Machin: Indeed. We have to be as scientific as we can from a research perspective. That is not guessing. Guessing would be someone just saying "Oh yeah, it looks representative," or "No, it doesn't." That is not what we do; we spend an enormous amount of time trying to be as scientific as we can in doing the research, otherwise there would be no point in doing it.

  Q75  Fiona Mactaggart: I understand that. I am trying to point out that one consequence of that kind of research is that people put weight on some examples that they do not bear out—I have cited one such example with which Dr Blanden agreed—and that, because you cannot know certain things, you have to extrapolate using the best evidence that you can in the circumstances. I called it guessing, and I might have been exaggerating, but I did that for effect. You cited some other work about the impact of Head Start and early years work. Some of the work that you cited was presumably based on a quite controlled experiment with many fewer people than the big panels that you used—the High/Scope Perry research for example. In such experiments, the same individuals, not one panel in 1958 and another in 1970, are tracked over time and the differences between the different groups are analysed. Is that a better way of studying these issues?

  Professor Machin: There are two points that I should like to make in response to that. First, returning to your point about dialogue between policy makers and researchers, there is a potential conflict of interest, because policy makers have different questions from academic researchers. Sometimes they coincide, and sometimes they do not. That is why people might have different incentives for interpreting results in different ways. Closer consultation on that is a good thing in order to minimise that conflict of interest. On the second point about experimental versus non-experimental data, that is something that we face a lot in the social sciences. We do not often have experiments that we can run in the same way as those in the medical sciences. However, we try to approximate them to the best of our ability, using non-experimental data to evaluate particular questions of interest. There are no experiments out there on social mobility. We cannot randomise somebody into a particular family as they are growing up and compare them to a family in which someone is not randomised into a higher or lower-income or higher or lower social-class family. So we must do what we can with non-experimental data. There are many studies out there comparing experimental outcomes with non-experimental outcomes in particular areas to see whether that matters and how you might develop methodologies to get closer to the experimental kind of studies. I would argue that we should still look at aspects of social mobility, whether income mobility or social-class mobility, even in the absence of experimental data. We should be doing that and trying to do the best job that we can with non-experimental data.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I think that you put your finger on a very serious matter—communication between politicians and social scientists. I would hope that thought could be given to that. However, on a more positive note, it is natural that politicians should, from time to time, try to make a political point from a piece of research that appears. That is their job. It is important, however, that they do not necessarily always believe their own propaganda. They should be ready to talk to researchers about this in a different mode. I think that a fair bit of that does, in fact, go on. I have discussed our research with Ed Miliband and other people in the Government, but I have also had several long conversations with David Willetts about it. At that level, communication is better.

  Q76  Chairman: To build on Fiona's point, is not there a problem in the way that your research has been picked up? As I have said, I admire the work of the Sutton Trust, particularly the work that it has done on the concentration of independently educated people in the BBC, major corporations, journalism and in almost every walk of life. That complements the work that you have done on social mobility, which is very thought-provoking and important for politicians to know about. We will pick up on the bits we like: if I raised the concentration of independently educated people at the BBC, I would immediately be hounded by the press unless I pointed to that piece of Sutton Trust work. There are interesting points for us because we spend our time in this Committee trying to scrutinise the work of Government and whether the spending of taxpayers' money is good value. One of the things that we have asked over a number of years is whether something is evidence-based policy. For that, we very much rely on you people. Coming out of your work on social mobility, there is one strand that says, "Oh, all that SureStart stuff, free nursery care and all that has all been a failure and has not worked", as Fiona would say. Some policy makers have then said, "Well, it's not worth doing anything because you cannot make any difference through educational policy to social mobility." Others, such as the Sutton Trust, have said, "You have got to renew and be more vigorous in the way that you give more kids the opportunity for a broader and better education." Therefore, the policy implications of your work are quite diverse, are they not?

  Professor Machin: Yes. As academic researchers, I think that we can take two positions on that, one of which is fairly productive and one of which is less so. We could say that we have done the research and whoever wants to use it can. On the other hand, we could engage in dialogue with people who are interested in it and perhaps go into much more detail on that in the way that we are doing in this Committee, which I think is very useful, so that we can actually come to a closer agreement on what the research findings mean and what their relevance is for policy. Many people take that first view: the research is done in an academic ivory tower and then if anyone wants to pick up on it, that is fine, but it has been done and published in a leading academic journal and is over and done with. I would prefer to think of the second position as being much more useful with regard to the impact that academic research can have in the policy arena.

  Q77  Chairman: I think that most people in this Committee think that your research has been very useful. Given you responses today, I would like to mention the importance of setting research in context. I know that I was nasty about some Nordic countries, but I have a thing about Finland. However, we were comparing the UK, like with like, with big, mature, industrial democracies. I got the feeling that, in one of your answers, there were slight throw aways: you said France is different. My intuition about the history of France is that it becomes a free-market, industrial, mature democracy much later than the UK, and the UK comes much later than the United States. If you are going to put your research into context, is there a sense that some of those societies mature in a different way? In a sense, the context is lost when you look only at that snapshot piece of research.

  Dr Goldthorpe: I have done quite a lot of comparative work with various colleagues on social mobility and think that you are absolutely right. Different countries follow different historical trajectories of development and have very different institutional forms. France is an interesting case in that regard, because it used to have a fairly rigid society, in terms of both class differences in education and social mobility. As I mentioned, it is one of the societies that has most clearly become more fluid, having starting off from a low base. One possible explanation that my French colleagues are working on is that that comes from the decline of the agricultural sector, which was particularly rigid and continued to be quite a sizeable sector in France until much later than it did in this country. It may well be that that is the source. Also, France has a highly centralised education system. When French Governments want to change educational policy, say in the interests of reducing class differentials, they have more powerful levers than exist in this country.

  Chairman: Graham, as usual, wants the last word.

  Q78  Mr Stuart: You have looked at the combination of class mobility and income mobility. If you look at it in terms of educational outcomes at certain key stages, how strong is the link between educational outcome and changes in either class or income mobility over time?

  Dr Goldthorpe: In my experience there is not a perfect but a clear association. Those countries that have been most successful in reducing class differences in educational attainment most often show an increase in fluidity.

  Q79  Mr Stuart: When we had our great time of change in the post-war world, was there a transformation in educational attainment among lower social classes?

  Dr Goldthorpe: No. In Britain, the evidence on the relationship between class and educational attainment is remarkably constant. Of course, more children from all class backgrounds have gone on to higher secondary and tertiary education, but the differentials have remained remarkably constant. We do not find any widening in class differentials in the way that Stephen and Jo do in relation to family income. We find just a constancy and that is rather disturbing.

  Professor Machin: We do find evidence that the relationship between educational attainment and family income has strengthened in terms of attainment at higher education and family income and in terms of early age test scores and family income. One of the nice things about the cohort data is that the children were tested in maths and reading as they were growing up. We find a stronger relationship for the second cohort than the first.

  Q80  Mr Stuart: So a system of early intervention to help lift up those who are falling behind, however it is done, will be effective.

  Professor Machin: Yes. If you look at the latest cohort study, the MCS and the relationship between age five test scores and family income, there is a very strong gradient between the two. That was in 2005.

  Chairman: A last word from Jo Blanden.

  Dr Blanden: It is not a very good last word.

  Chairman: That is all right.

  Dr Blanden: One thing that I have noticed from looking at a lot of the sociological work in the run-up to this is something that appears in John's work—I think he would agree—in that the relationship between educational background and social class seems to be falling. However, we do not find that there is any fall in the relationship between education and earnings at all. That might be another component of why we find this slightly differing picture. That was a bad last word.

  Chairman: No, it was not. This has been more of a seminar than a regular question and answer session. You have educated us wonderfully. We have enjoyed the experience and will use your words today as we look further at social mobility. We would be grateful if we could keep in touch with you. Thank you very much for your time.

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