A broken ladder: does COVID-19 mean the end of social mobility in Britain?

Wednesday, 7 October 2020 14:06 GMT

Pupils prepare at the start of a GCSE mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in south east London, March 2, 2012 REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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Lee Elliot Major, Britain's first professor of social mobility, says a one-off wealth tax and an army of tutoring volunteers could help those left behind by COVID-19

LONDON, Oct 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)  - Billionaires are getting richer while the poor fall behind but how is the coronavirus pandemic impacting social mobility?

Climbing the social ladder, or 'getting ahead', is held up in countries from Britain to the United States as a sign of a healthy economy and society.

But with travel, learning and work curtailed by lockdowns, experts see fewer opportunities to prosper and hope it forces a fresh look at what it means to have a fair shot in life.

Lee Elliot Major grew up on a social housing estate in London and worked as a garbage collector in his youth. Now 51, he was the first member of his family to attend university and the first Briton to become a professor of social mobility.

How do you define social mobility?

What are the prospects of this generation doing better than the previous one but also what are their chances of climbing the social ladder? In essence it is about the chances of having a decent life and a decent job.

How did you become a professor of social mobility?

My parents split up when I was 15 and I dropped out of school. I did a number of jobs including working as a street cleaner. Eventually I went back to school and then to university where I got a PhD. Social mobility is a growing challenge for society and I believe (Exeter) university created the post to improve the prospects of disadvantaged young people. It sounds idealistic, I know.

Why should we care about social mobility?

In December 2019, Boris Johnson’s return to power in Britain extended a remarkable parliamentary tradition: every prime minister since the end of the Second World War who has attended an English university has attended just one institution: Oxford.

 If you have detached elites in charge of a country, they become unrepresentative of the people they serve and are less effective because they are less diverse.

Social mobility also impacts economic health.

If you exploit all the talent in your country you will be a more economically vibrant country.

We want a society where if you work hard and have talent you have some chance of success. At the moment that isn’t the case.    

Why are the disadvantaged taking the biggest COVID-19 hit?

During lockdown in Britain, kids in private schools were five times as likely to have four or more online lessons than state school pupils. That's a staggering divide.

The privileged, meanwhile, shielded themselves from the damage by paying for private tuition.

The progress we made as a country in narrowing educational gaps over the last decade was obliterated in three months.

We are talking here about education scarring: big numbers of disadvantaged students who have missed key benchmarks like getting into university or who have failed to get the basic grades to be employable.

It will have a generational impact.

You talk about a new 'dark age' post pandemic - describe it.

High graduate unemployment rates, lots of young people staying at home in their parents houses for extended periods. Big regional disparities. The competitiveness for prize internships and jobs will become even more intense. The silver lining is that younger generation might rise up and demand a redistribution of wealth.   

Any other silver linings?

The unprecedented steps already taken in this country to alleviate the crisis could trigger a new dawn where radical steps are discussed to create a more inclusive economy.  

As social movements following the Second World War demonstrate, it is possible that fairer and more collective societies can emerge from hard times.

It's hard to see that happening, though, until we acknowledge the broken promise at the heart of modern capitalism which is that we all get to have better lives. 

How does Britain, or the United States, stack up globally?

Social mobility is much lower in Britain and the U.S. than it should be, especially compared to countries like Australia and Canada.

The young generation, under 25s, are facing declining mobility. Earnings are less compared to their parents in real terms. People are finding it harder to get on the housing ladder.

In both the U.S. and Britain we see this stickiness at the very top and bottom of society. Fifty percent of leading people across a range of professions, chief execs, to lawyers and leading figures in sport and the arts come from private schools, which make up only 7% of schools. 

How can we encourage social mobility in COVID-19?

Living wages for key workers and a national tutoring service with graduates helping children to catch up are two options.

I'm also a proponent of random allocation for school and university admissions where candidates have to met a threshold of selection criteria.

We haven’t had a wealth tax in many years. The government has to consider something like a one-off progressive tax on the net worth of the top 1% for us to recover.

It wouldn’t actually damage the wealthy elite that much.

But really we need a fundamental reset. It sounds grand but we have to ask 'how do we create a less individualistic, polarised society?' Look at New Zealand, the stated aim of the government budget is to improve the wellbeing of its citizens.


(Reporting by Tom Finn, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)