Jonathan Portes, Research Seminar: Press Note

Press note:

Research Seminar, Institute of Education, 25 January 2012, Room 642

New policies needed if government is to meet its objective to improve social mobility

The Government has stated that its primary social policy objective is to increase social mobility. Both academics and policy-makers agree that the single most important policy lever is education, broadly defined. Yet there is little consensus on the impact on social mobility of changes, past and future, to the education system. At a research seminar on 25 January 2012, organised by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES), Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), discussed the current state of research on education, inequality and social mobility, and the implications for policy.

Portes said that both the UK and international evidence suggests a clear link between income inequality, social immobility, and the socio-economic gradient of education (the extent to which the children of the better off achieve better educational outcomes). Although the precise patterns of causality – and the time lags – are unclear, it is reasonable to assume that reducing socio-economic gradient would over time improve social mobility. Research suggests that the fall in social mobility seen in recent decades reflects both the sharp rise in income inequality seen in the 1980s and increased educational inequality in 1980s and 1990s, in particular in progression to higher education. However, in the short term there might be some cause for optimism; inequality, especially at the bottom end, stabilised in the 2000s, while the socio-economic gradient of educational attainment had fallen in recent years, at least for some age groups.

Looking to the medium term, though, he was less optimistic. Income inequality is likely to rise, both as a result of austerity measures and wider labour market trends; both current levels of youth unemployment, and wage stagnation for lower-middle income workers, are likely to have a damaging impact. The focus of government policies to increase social mobility, however, is the reduction of educational attainment gaps, and over the long term, at least, this seems appropriate. Portes said, however, that it is far from clear that policies implemented so far will have an overall positive effect:

- To the extent that structural reforms to the school system increase selection (and/or socio-economic segregation), this is likely to reduce social mobility. International evidence strongly suggests that selection increases socio-economic attainment gaps without improving outcomes; and UK evidence suggests that grammar schools were at best neutral for social mobility;

- The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) clearly reduced socio-economic attainment gaps, so its abolition is likely to reduce social mobility. This will be counteracted by the introduction of the pupil premium; but plausible quantitative estimates, based on the research literature, suggest that, even with optimistic assumptions about impact, this is unlikely to do more than reverse the negative effect of the abolition of EMA.

Portes concluded that, while welcome, it is not plausible to assume that the pupil premium will do more than mitigate the impact of other government policies. The government will need to take more considerably more aggressive policy action, in education and other policy areas, if it really wants to make social mobility its “overriding social policy objective”.

A copy of the presentation is available here: Jonathan Portes – LLAKES January 2012

Notes for editors:

Mr Portes’ talk is based in part on his article “Poverty and Inequality: An Introduction”, National Institute Economic Review, October 2011.

The Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES) is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and is hosted by the Institute of Education, University of London. (Further details of the LLAKES research programme are available at or via Richard Arnold at 0207 911 5464 or

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