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How realistic is social mobility?

Billy Wong

We hear a lot about social mobility, especially during elections. Political parties and governments often use social mobility (alongside keywords such as opportunity, potential and justice) as a means to set out their visions of a fair, or fairer, society. In Western societies, a fair society entails meritocracy.

In my earlier work with Professor Becky Francis, we asserted that social mobility is premised on inequality and meritocracy. The concept of social mobility assumes that there is social inequality, but that this inequality (or difference) should be based on merit or ability. People can move up and down the social strata depending on their achievements as individuals are matched to employment based on their competencies. Yet, in reality, merit and ability are hardly detached from our social environments, which are heavily imbued within inequalities of resources and opportunities. As inferred by Rawls, if the starting blocks in a race are placed at very different points, the race outcomes cannot be fair or simply based on merit (Francis and Wong, 2013).

there is only so much room at the top, in terms of the best education and the best jobs

As such, social mobility has to be relative and comparisons are sometimes made with our immediate family members. With the expansion of higher education, more young people than ever before will have higher academic qualifications than their parents. A large cohort of youngsters would in theory be experiencing upward social mobility because of their degrees, which grant access to graduate level careers and the graduate salary premium. Yet, there is only so much room at the top, in terms of the best education and the best jobs available. As emphasised in Bourdieu’s theory of social and cultural reproduction, those who are already at the top is likely to exercise their capital and resources to ensure that their children are equipped with the skills and knowledge to command positions of power and privilege in society. We only have to look at our political system to see that Eton College alone has produced 19 British Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers are dominated by those with a private education (The Telegraph, 2016). Others have reported the dominance of the privileged in high status professions, such as high court judges and leading journalists (Milburn, 2012; Sutton Trust, 2009). While Oxford university recently reported that admission places offered to state-educated pupils were at an all-time higher, at 59.2% in 2016, this also suggests over 40% of places were offered to privately-educated students, who represent just 6.5% of school children in the UK (BBC, 2016).

inequality is not based on merit, but rather, on social and structural variables

Now and again, we read stories of talented individuals who have ‘bucked the trend’ with extraordinary achievements, notably in national examinations. However, these are the exceptions and not the norm. The apparent success, at least academically, of the few cannot be taken as the shattering of the glass (or even concrete) ceiling, because, as many studies continue to report, social inequality is very much alive and well, perhaps even growing. And this inequality is not based on merit, but rather, on social and structural variables such as socioeconomic background, gender, ‘race’/ethnicity, age, disability status, special educational needs, English as Additional Language, area of residence, school attended and so on. The list continues.

In 2015, the Sutton Trust produced a Social Mobility Index, which ‘ranks all 533 parliamentary constituencies in England according to five measures of social mobility through education … [and] how well each constituency is doing in improving prospects for their most disadvantaged young people.’ The five indicators include the performances of disadvantaged pupils in 1) early years test, 2) Key Stage 2 tests, 3) at GCSE, as well as 4) their progress to universities and 5) to professional occupations. Their focus on the ‘most disadvantaged’ group, as indicated by eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM), is important, but that is just one of the many facets of social inequality and social mobility. Even within the category of FSM, the experiences of individuals will still vary by other intersecting social and structural variables, as listed earlier.

The picture painted here is bleak because the problems are deep-rooted. Attempts and initiatives are being made, mostly at the micro-level, to reduce such disadvantages (e.g., anonymised job applications, the abolition of informal or unpaid internships). These efforts can make a real difference, albeit for the lucky few. Until we all make a conscious and concerted effort tackle the beast of social reproduction, which must be led by the government, supported by businesses and professionals and enforced by the masses, social mobility remains to be a lottery with few lucky winners.


Francis, B., and Wong, B. (2013) What is preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence. Leicester: Association of School and College Leaders.

Milburn, A. (2012). Fair Access to Professional Careers: A progress report by the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. London: The Cabinet Office.

Sutton Trust (2009) The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Lawyers, Journalists, Vice Chancellors, Politicians, Medics and Chief Executives. London: Sutton Trust.


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