As any casual reader of the nation's newspapers knows, or thinks she knows, Britain has become a less socially mobile society in recent decades, and much of the blame lies with the comprehensive school system.
But has social mobility in Britain really declined? And is it really true that comprehensive schools are worse for social mobility than the selective grammar and secondary modern schools they have largely replaced?
The debate on social mobility
The answer to the first of these questions is far from clear cut and is, in fact, a matter of continuing academic dispute. On the one hand, a group of economists at the London School of Economics assert that, yes, social mobility in Britain has declined, and on the other, a collection of sociologists at the University of Oxford insist that, no, it hasn't. The economists cite in support of their claim evidence that the incomes of people born in 1970 were more strongly correlated with the incomes of their parents than had been the case for people born in 1958 (Blanden, Gregg and Machin, 2005). The sociologists, using the same data source, cite contrary evidence that people's occupational class destinations were no more and no less strongly linked to their class origins for those born in 1970 as compared to those born in 1958 (Goldthorpe and Jackson, 2008).
The sociologists' claim that the extent of class mobility has remained the same has not been disputed by economists. In contrast, the economists' claim that income mobility has declined has been strongly contested by sociologists, who have argued that the economists' findings may simply reflect the unreliable nature of one-shot measures of income (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 2010). Nevertheless, it has been the economists' rather than the sociologists' account of things that the national newspapers have run with, perhaps because stories about things having got worse are considered more newsworthy than stories about things having stayed much the same (see Goodhart, 2008, for a more balanced review of the evidence offered up by both camps).
Many journalists reporting the economists' verdict on social mobility have, however, gone one step further to claim not only that social mobility has declined but also that the demonstrated cause of the reduction was the introduction of a comprehensive school system. According to The Times:
A Sutton Trust study for the London School of Economics proves that comprehensives damage social mobility. (The Times, 9.08.2005) Similarly, according to The Sunday Times, The Daily Mail, and The Observer, respectively:
A report from the London School of Economics (LSE) published last month showed that the decline of grammar schools had helped deepen class divisions, effectively kicking the ladder away from bright children. (The Sunday Times, 31.07.2005) The end of the grammar school system has helped widen class divisions, say researchers. (The Daily Mail, 25.04.2005) 40 years of comprehensives have left Britain a sclerotic society where parents' money matters more than a child's talent...