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This government, alongside most of its predecessors, is concerned about social mobility. A society in which one's prospects are largely or wholly determined by chance of birth is not one with which many will feel comfortable. But any strategy to increase social mobility must be long term, multi-faceted and cautious in its claims.
As the coalition government prepares to launch its own strategy for tackling social mobility, recent work at IFS exploring the literature on social mobility has highlighted some important conclusions that the government would be wise to bear in mind.
First, countries with higher income inequality tend to have lower social mobility (at least when using income-based definitions of mobility). In an unequal society there is further to travel to get from the bottom to the middle or the top. The UK has relatively high income inequality and low social mobility. It is therefore likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality.
Particularly in a context of high levels of inequality such as that in the UK it is important to be clear what one is trying to achieve through increased social mobility. It is obvious that pursuing relative social mobility implies downward mobility for individuals from rich/middle income families. In a world in which the consequences of downward social mobility are significant, there will be many who find this mobility very uncomfortable.
It also matters whether the government is more concerned about improving the mobility of the most disadvantaged or those somewhat further up the social spectrum. Policies aimed at improving the mobility of the most disadvantaged or the least skilled can be very costly. In part this is because the UK labour market appears to be "hollowing out", by which we mean there are increasing numbers of high skill and low skill jobs, and fewer in the middle. So it may be harder and more costly to help those at the very bottom than it will be to help those somewhat above the bottom. Any comprehensive social mobility strategy is likely to want to deal with both of these groups and may need to treat them quite differently.
One set of interventions which we know are important are those aimed at very young children, as the recent Field Review and Allen Review have highlighted. But it is equally important to understand that they will never be enough by themselves. The evidence is clear that early investments are most productive if they are followed up with later investments. Important findings in this area are that:
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A give and take Autumn Statement?
The Autumn Statement is expected to contain a welcome upward revision to the forecast for economic growth this year and a welcome downward revision to the headline deficit. But any improvement will be small relative to the level of the deficit forecast in the Budget, and the deficit this year will still be very high by historical standards and relative to what was projected at the start of this Parliament and compared to what the Chancellor is ultimately hoping to achieve. So as the Chancellor George Osborne prepares for the Autumn Statement, if he is planning to make good on the promises of giveaways made during the party conference season he should also be considering new measures to pay for them.
Entry to grammar schools in England for disadvantaged children
New work by IFS researchers, funded by the Sutton Trust, suggests that grammar schools are disproportionately unlikely to admit students who are eligible for free school meals, even when conditioning on their academic performance in primary school. They are by contrast disproportionately likely to admit children who have attended private schools before age 11.
The crucial role of good evidence in evidence-based policymaking
In a time of continuing fiscal austerity, policymakers increasingly want to know ‘what works’ and for whom, in order to target scarce resources on those who will benefit most and to ensure that policy has the desired impact upon those it is designed for. Basing policy decisions on evidence is undoubtedly a good thing - but only if the evidence used is robust, unbiased and methodologically sound. This observation uses recent IFS work on the link between parents’ marital status and relationship stability and child development to illustrate the challenges of using research to inform policymaking.