Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Digested Read

The Social Mobility Commission's New Report Reads Like a Brochure for the Conservatives

Erzsébet Bukodi and John. H Goldthorpe


Daniel Thiele

| 7 mins read

There are some key ways in which the Social Mobility Commission’s most recent annual report claims to take a new perspective on social mobility, at least in contrast with their previous annual reports. Firstly, the report–entitled 'State of the Nation 2022: A Fresh Approach to Social Mobility'–claims to give greater attention to academic research into social mobility. Second, it strays into theoretical issues—with normative implications—concerning individual agency in social mobility. Third, the way in which the report contrasts most strikingly with previous ones is in its determinedly upbeat tone.

A key question then arises: how far are these claims by the SMC to a new approach sustainable?

Greater Attention to Academic Research

Attention to academic research is most evident regarding mobility outcomes—where they fit well with the report’s good news theme. Where social class mobility is concerned, Britain is not a low mobility country and mobility is not declining. However, while the total proportion of people found in different class positions to their families of origin has remained stable, a marked change can be traced in upward and downward mobility. For cohorts born up to the 1950s, upward mobility was a far more common experience. But for later cohorts, downward mobility has become increasingly common. The report recognises this, yet there is no consideration of what to do to reverse this trend. Rather, it is somewhat desperately suggested that it is ‘a sign of success’ reflecting past upgrading of the class structure.

Elsewhere, a graph appears suggesting that an equalisation in relative class mobility rates has occurred. However, no academic research is cited. The graph supposedly derives from ‘internal estimates’ based on data from 1972-2020 from several reputable surveys. While this may sound impressive, any information on how the data from these surveys, of differing design, were harmonised is lacking. Further, the figure appears to relate to all respondents to the surveys aged 35–54 years, with no distinction being made by gender. But academic research suggests no tendency for relative rates of class mobility to become more equal among men, while such a tendency does appear among women. Treating the two genders together could therefore be misleading. In short, the supposed greater reliance on the findings of academic research turns out to be selective and, overall, quite limited.

The Role of Agency

Individual agency is stressed in the report in achieving upward mobility. For young people to ‘change their stars’, it is argued, not only do cognitive ability and skills matter, but also attributes such as aspiration and a readiness for hard work. The importance of the active support of parents is also underlined. All this may have force. However, if agency is to be emphasised for individuals being upwardly mobile from disadvantaged class origins, it would seem also relevant to recognise its role in enabling those born into advantaged positions to remain there. Agency would seem prominent in the case of parents with superior economic resources seeking ‘to do the best they can’ for their children – and in particular to prevent them losing their class privilege. They can, as the report notes, pay for private schooling or buy houses in catchment areas of high performing state schools. But the report has nothing further to say on such ‘opportunity hoarding’. The report’s emphasis on agency seems to minimise the significance of the relationship between mobility and inequality in stressing that, through personal qualities, individuals of disadvantaged origins can nonetheless succeed.

The Upbeat Tone

As mentioned above, the report's upbeat tone contrasts strikingly with previous reports. A fresh approach is indeed evident. But this is also concerning. Academic research is drawn on selectively. It is one thing to seek to correct unduly pessimistic narratives of social mobility, but it is quite another to suggest that all the indications are of mobility being on the increase. It is unfitting that a report from what is an independent statutory body, charged with holding governments to account, frequently reads like a promotional brochure.

Considering the report’s tone, how is the SMC’s role now to be understood? The report recognises more is needed to engender a situation where ‘the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life’. However, no new policies directed to this end are proposed. Even ‘early thinking’ about policy solutions will seemingly have to wait until results become available from a new ‘mobility index’ presently under construction. This might appear defensible, but, if, as the report insists, all current trends are in a favourable direction, few grounds would appear to exist for any radical form of intervention. Is the good news theme intended to imply that there are no longer grounds for entertaining proposals of this kind?


Considering everything above, how far does the SMC reflect the growing inclination of Conservative administrations to influence public bodies? The playing down of disparities in access to the most advantageous class positions and how inequality of condition thus systematically compromises equality of opportunity, along with the emphasis on individual agency as a counter to the accidents of birth, would seem to have the same ideological colouration.

It is moreover of interest that thinking about mobility along the lines evident in State of the Nation 2022 has been current in Conservative Party circles for some time. Shifting attention away from extreme inequalities in relative mobility chances reduces pressure for measures aimed at limiting opportunity hoarding by more advantaged families—measures which could erode Conservative support. And doubts of the Commission’s independence are only reinforced by the appointments of the new commissioners that followed on the report, three of whom have direct Conservative Party affiliations. The next annual report of the SMC will indeed be an interesting document.

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