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Education and social mobility

The role of education in promoting social mobility is a matter of intense contemporary sociological and political debate. In modern societies, education – specifically the acquisition of higher educational qualifications – has become an increasingly important factor in determining which jobs people enter and their social class position. Government policy and educational institutions’ admission and certification practices can have a significant impact on social inequalities.

So what do we know, and what can the government learn, about what policies and practices can make a difference? First, funding. Evidence from international cross-sections (Ichino et al. 2009) and across US states (Mayer and Lopoo 2008), suggests that social mobility is going to be higher when public education is better funded. A notable study of US reforms by Kirabo Jackson et al. (2016) has recently found that a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27% more completed years of education, 7.25% higher wages, and a 3.67% reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty. Importantly Jackson found that effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.

Second, selection practices. A number of studies have found selection has clear adverse effects for equity in terms of both academic achievement and long-term labour market outcomes, measured as the impact of family background on these outcomes (see Betts 2011 for commentary). At a system level, we know from the Chilean experiment with that selection, when combined with a laissez-faire attitude to top-ups, has a similar excluding effect as private tutoring for grammar school entry. In Chile these policies resulted in mobility from poorly performing schools to better schools becoming restricted to well-performing pupils from higher socio-economic backgrounds (Román and Perticará 2012). Moreover, pupils attending low-quality schools that potentially faced school closure ended up with no viable alternative schools, partly because selection practices had effectively barred them from attending local schools (Elacqua et al. 2012). Finally, there’s the added problem that selection distorts existing mechanisms aimed at increasing choice and competition.

Third, in respect of choice and information provision, we know that parents of less privileged backgrounds make fewer ambitious choices and their children are less likely to get into good schools than more advantaged pupils (Burgess et al. 2009; Burgess and Briggs 2010; Burgess et al. 2011). But we also know that parents respond to information about education quality, to positive effect for test score outcomes; that accurate, credible and sufficiently intelligible information on school quality is lacking; and that choice and competition are positive for pupil outcomes (see the literature surveys in Croft 2017, and Heller Sahlgren 2013a).

In contrast to increasing selection, increasing choice and de-coupling it from proximity, probably reduces between-school differences (segregation), and certainly has no overall adverse effects on achievement differences between pupils, and may even benefit pupils of lower educated pupils and lower socio-economic background, more than pupils of others. On the former, although studies appear to indicate to the contrary, they do not take account for the counterfactual importance of residential segregation and enrolment in private schools for school segregation (i.e. school choices that would have been made regardless of whether there are any institutionalised school choice programmes in place). Of course, to overcome geography, you need to incentivise supply to socioeconomically challenged areas, and to add supporting measures such as investment in developing the school transportation network.

Finally, what can governments, and schools, do to support improvement in education equity in admissions, if selective schools are not the answer. In that lotteries in cases of over-subscription can work with choice to break the tie to residence, these are greatly to be preferred (see the argument for this approach in Heller Sahlgren 2013b).

In social mobility terms, the ultimate prize is improved university enrolment from students of low socio-economic background. Lower attainment levels are clearly highly determinative, but the removal of borrowing constraints, provision of income contingent loans, better information provision, provision of guidance and support at admission and throughout a student’s undergraduate experience to ensure completion, have all been identified as supporting improved access and success. More on these in subsequent posts.

As the government seeks achievable policy goals in relation to its express commitment to improving social mobility it would so well to attend to research in these areas. 

(Note: key sources for literature reviews are hyperlinked.)

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