X Close

Too posh to fail For clever poor kids to go up the ladder, mediocre rich kids need to go down

Credit: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

March 25, 2019   7 mins

My office is literally in the shadow of Westminster School, one of the country’s most expensive. Pupils pass our window all day long, shuttling between the school’s various sites clustered around Westminster Abbey and loafing around the local coffeeshops.

Passing a group of Westminster sixth-formers on the street recently sent me on a journey into memory that reminded me of an unspoken truth of political debate around education and opportunity. Though politicians all say they want more social mobility, they don’t really mean it. Or at least, they wouldn’t mean it if they stopped to think about what that actually means.

The boys in question could have come from central casting. All tall, all thin, all floppy hair and loud good humour. One wore the sort of overcoat politicians wear to the Cenotaph, another a Tweed shooting jacket. Both fit perfectly. As did the uniforms that look more like lounge suits. The loafers and brogues were scuffed, of course, but not so much as to conceal how expensive they were.

From 50 yards off, I’d initially clocked them for a group of Tory researchers, either from Conservative party HQ or the Commons, heading back to the office after lunch. It was only when they drew closer that I even realised not one of them was old enough to vote.

The Proustian thing was that seeing those boys – young men, more accurately – strolling through Dean’s Yard took me back to a trip I made to Oxford University 25-odd years ago for an interview.

There were a lot of reasons that I didn’t, in the end, take up a place at Oxford, but one was that it just didn’t feel like a place for someone like me. Too many of the other candidates were cut from the same cloth as those Westminster boys: charming, confident, self-assured and comfortable. They knew they belonged there.

(Some things don’t change. A headteacher in the Northumberland town where I was born recently told me about a boy from his school who is a truly gifted mathematician, the sort of brain that wins prizes and makes millions. So keen was the head to ensure that his pupil ended up at a college with a quad that he personally accompanied the boy to open days and interviews – his parents were too poor and too scared. And when it all paid off and Oxbridge opened its door to that boy? He said No. It just wasn’t a place for him.)

What’s this got to do with social mobility policy? Think again about what social mobility means. It’s a measure of how much someone’s final economic status moves independently of their background: real social mobility means where you end up is determined by your talent, character, effort and actions, not the family you happened to grow up in.

Naturally, politicians talk about upward mobility, focusing on how easily (or not) children from poorer homes can “climb the ladder”, get more education and income than their parents and generally, to use an out-of-fashion phrase, better themselves. Who doesn’t like a story of upward mobility, of people working their way to the top? Of course we want more of that, so of course that’s what politicians like to sell us.

But political conversation on social mobility rarely dwells on downward mobility, where someone ends up with less money and status than their parents. This isn’t a theoretical thing. It happens, though generally only to people who start out in the lower half of the income distribution. If you grow up rich, you’ll almost certainly stay rich in later life; your chances of experiencing downward social mobility are really quite small.

Why? A lot of people — especially ones who went to private schools and write for Right-wing newspapers – like to explain everything through education: richer kids go to better schools and get better grades, so of course they get better jobs, it’s said. That’s the way of the world, folks. If you want to change it, provide better schools for poor kids.

And of course, poor kids need and deserve better schools; Matthew Goodwin set out that case brilliantly on UnHerd last week. But guess what? Better schools for poor kids will not be enough.

Ask just about any politician about social mobility and they’ll immediately talk about the need to improve state education. They probably won’t talk about the work of Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics.

In 2015, she produced a report for the Government showing that differences in education aren’t the only reason the British jobs market is tilted in favour of the privileged.

Analysing data from the British Cohort Study — which tracks the lives of 17,000 people born in the same week in 1970 – McKnight reached the following conclusion:

“Children from more advantaged family backgrounds are more likely to have high earnings in later adult life and are more likely to be in a ‘top job’. This is not simply due to different levels of cognitive ability as it holds within attainment groups as well as over the complete distribution.”

In other words, a clever rich kid will grow up to earn more than an equally clever poor one.

Indeed, this effect is so strong that some not-so-clever rich kids will grow up to out-earn much smarter poor kids. Their relative failure in education won’t cause them to slide down the ladder.

McKnight sees a “glass floor” under their outcomes, a level below which they cannot fall. She might as well have called it a ‘class floor’ because class plays a huge part in explaining why some people really can’t fail in life, no matter how little they try.

This is what Richard Reeves, a former adviser to Nick Clegg, has called “dream hoarding”. Sometimes life really is a zero-sum game: one person’s success means another cannot succeed. A job taken by an averagely-bright middle class applicant can’t be won by a bright poor one. McKnight speaks of “lower-skilled advantaged children blocking the success of higher-skilled disadvantaged children through the hoarding of opportunities.”

How does this happen? Another 2015 study by the Social Mobility Commission conducted numerous interviews with recruiters from “top” firms in law, accountancy and banking, exploring why their recruitment is skewed in favour of applicants from better-off backgrounds.

While richer people do tend to get higher exam grades and degrees from “better” universities, that wasn’t the only reason they got the best jobs. The study found that “elite firms define ‘talent’ according to a number of factors such as drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’, which participants in the research acknowledged can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.”

In other words, people handing out top jobs aren’t recruiting purely on the basis of brainpower and talent. They’re also hiring the soft skills, demeanour and habits that a privileged upbringing gives you – regardless of your talents or industry.

So those Westminster lads strolling through the yard are right to exhibit such comfort and confidence. They are the holders of what amounts to an insurance policy against failure in life. Even if they do relatively poorly in their exams or at university, they will still, in statistical probability, do OK in life. Indeed, it’s quite possible that their “polish” will see them through to a high-earning career regardless – possibly even beating smarter, poorer kids seeking the same jobs.

A bad outcome for them would be to end up about as wealthy and successful as their parents; falling down the ladder to end up poorer would most likely require either conscious choice or significant, and thus unlikely, misfortune or malfeasance. Botching some exams or even – whisper it – just being a bit thick wouldn’t be enough to put them on the breadline.

Anyone who went to one of our “better” universities will grasp this on an anecdotal level, familiar with stories of contemporaries from affluent homes who drank, toked and dozed their way to a 2:2, or even a third, yet still somehow ended up with a job in the City and a nice house in Fulham. Medicine, the law and politics are generously staffed with people who succeeded at least in part because their parents insulated them from the risk of failure.

But this goes beyond anecdote. McKnight’s data shows that children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability. Tim Nice But Dim has long vanished from TV, but he lives on in that data and the UK economy.

That study on “polish” and the McKnight paper were both published in 2015. Just as the Coalition government was winding down, the Social Mobility Commission, under Alan Milburn and Gillian Shephard, was just starting to dig into the neglected, uncomfortable but vital aspects of the social mobility challenge.

Four years is a long time in British politics, and the last four especially so. Precious few politicians wanted to engage with that research at the time, and those that did sadly aren’t in a position to build on it. Justine Greening was keen to tackle this issue when she was Education Secretary, but is now wasted on the backbenches. Milburn and Shephard ended up quitting in frustration at Theresa May’s timidity and lack of commitment to social mobility.

Their replacements are serious, well-meaning people; Damian Hinds, the current education secretary, knows the social mobility debate as well as just about any politician. But – in part, no doubt, because of the vast distraction of Brexit – neither he nor the Prime Minister has yet shown the boldness to acknowledge that true social mobility is a sword that cuts both ways; let alone to swing that blade at the armour with which middle-class parents equip their kids.

To be fair, there are some positive signs. Sam Friedman, an LSE sociologist and the co-author of an excellent recent book (The Class Ceiling – Why it Pays to be Privileged) is now a member of the new Social Mobility Commission. But he’s one of many commissioners, and the worry is that this SMC lacks the focus and clout Alan Milburn’s body had.

The US debate about downward mobility has been illuminated by the work of Reeves, now at the Brookings Institute in Washington; as a country with a clearer story about the importance of mobility, America is perhaps more receptive to new arguments here. But so far, British politicians haven’t quite caught up with these issues.

I can’t think of a politician who doesn’t say Britain should be more socially mobile, that we should have more social mobility. Would quite so many of them be so quick to use those words if ‘more social mobility’ was understood to mean ‘more mediocre middle-class kids ending up poor’?

Breaking the class floor won’t be quick or easy. CV-blind recruitment and ‘contextual’ data on applicants’ backgrounds would be a start. A bigger goal would be challenging the value that is still attached to that polished debating-points style that has its apotheosis in a certain sort of Oxford PPE graduate.

If politicians are serious about social mobility, they should acknowledge and embrace its implications, even if they are uncomfortable on behalf of people for whom comfort is not an aspiration but the norm.

What Gore Vidal said of friendship is true of social mobility too: “It is not enough to succeed. Others have to fail.”


Click here to read the rest of our series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments