An Investigation of Social Mobility Using the ONS Longitudinal Study: sub-national variation and effects of selective education

Lead Research Organisation: University of Westminster
Department Name: Westminster Business School


Is Britain an open and fair society? Do people achieve career success and social status through talent and hard work? Or, is where we end up in life primarily determined by the circumstances into which we are born? It is questions such as these that we will be concerned with in this research project. Recent research into 'social mobility' has uncovered some uncomfortable truths about how meritocratic Britain really is and how it compares to other modern democracies around the world. In short, the evidence suggests that Britain is not becoming more socially mobile and compares rather unfavourably with its international peers.

Yet, existing research on social mobility has focused primarily on national level questions about trends in social mobility over time. We know much less about how rates of social mobility vary across different regions, cities, and towns in Britain, or how variation in social mobility has been affected by changes in the school system. In this research, we address some of these gaps in our understanding of social mobility in Britain. We ask whether some parts of the country are more meritocratic than others; is London the only stepladder to upward mobility, or can those from less advantaged backgrounds also find success in cities like Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle? Have regional differences in social mobility been stable over time, or have some regions witnessed increasing or declining rates of mobility? Recent research has revealed that 'hot' and 'cold' social mobility spots are evident in the United States. We will consider whether more local variation in social mobility is also evident in Britain.

In addition to assessing the extent of regional variation in social mobility in Britain, we will also consider how the change from a predominantly selective to a comprehensive system of education in the 1970s affected social mobility. It is often contended by advocates and opponents of grammar schools alike that selective education promotes (or hinders) social mobility. Yet the evidence base on which such claims rest is thin. In this research we will produce new evidence on a longstanding debate that has been reinvigorated of late by the Government's pledge to expand the number of grammar schools in the next parliament.

We will address these questions by analysing a unique data source - the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Survey (ONS-LS) - which contains linked census records for over two million people in Britain between 1971 and 2011. The LS has a number of useful properties for studying social mobility, which mean we will be able to track representative samples of the British population from childhood to adulthood. We will compare people's occupations at different points in their working lives to those of their parents when LS members were children, decades earlier. We will calculate and compare 'mobility rates' for cohorts of people born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s. The very large sample size of the LS means that we will be able estimate rates of absolute and relative inter-generational mobility at regional, county, and Local Authority District levels.

In addition, by making use of the geographic information in the LS we will be able to differentiate between areas with high and low concentrations of selective schooling and how this has changed over time, so we can compare social mobility rates according to the school system that LS members were exposed to.

The applicants have made extensive use of the ONS-LS in their previous research on social mobility and are thus ideally placed to undertake these analyses.

Planned Impact


We anticipate that two main groups will benefit from this programme of research:

GROUP 1: Academic social scientists with substantive and methodological interests in intergenerational social mobility. This primarily comprises sociologists and economists but also includes demographers, social policy analysts, social statisticians, educationists and anthropologists. We expect that the approach we adopt in this research, which integrates econometric with more traditional sociological approaches to the estimation of mobility rates and trends, will serve to bring researchers from these disciplines into closer contact and to promote inter and cross-disciplinary research. The research will also highlight to academic researchers the utility of the ONS Longitudinal Study as a unique and under-utilised resource for longitudinal secondary analysis with specific emphasis on regional profiles.

GROUP 2: Researchers and policy-makers in central and local government and third sector organisations with an interest in understanding and promoting social mobility in the United Kingdom. Because social mobility is a key focus of government policy, the findings of our research will be of interest to many government departments and ministries. In particular, our findings will benefit the Social Mobility Commission and the Office for National Statistics, who are both gathering evidence on social mobility to underpin the development of policy in this area. Our research will also be of benefit to third sector organisations such as the Sutton Trust. We have developed this proposal in light of discussions with the aforementioned stakeholders and we anticipate their support in our impact events. We anticipate participation from additional government departments as well as researchers in local government and third sector organisations.


GROUP 1: Our research addresses acknowledged limitations of the existing literature on trends in intergenerational social mobility in the United Kingdom. In doing so, we hope to shed light on some key questions in this important field of study, which will be of benefit to all academic disciplines with an interest in social mobility. Primarily, we will, for the first time in the UK context, attempt to provide evidence on intergenerational mobility rates and trends across different measures of mobility for disaggregated regional geographies in the UK. At present, the limitations of existing data mean that it has not been possible to adequately identify anything other than national trends in mobility, and even here, substantive variation from differential methodological approaches have been reported. Moreover, we will provide evidence on various outcomes measures such as occupational status, social class and educational levels to ensure that our results are contextualized within a wider debate of 'social mobility'.

GROUP 2: policy-makers and third sector organisations will benefit from this research because our goal is to provide detailed evidence on social mobility 'hot-' and 'cold-spots' in England and Wales over recent decades. The current, somewhat inconsistent state of evidence, is only available at national level which makes it difficult for policy makers to understand the sorts of strategies that might or might not be effective in promoting social fluidity. National policies are complex to create and its effect on local geographies may not always be uniform. Our research will provide important evidence on the effect of selective schooling on social mobility which we will endeavour to feed into future policy in this area. Although our research is, by definition, backward-looking, we believe it is likely to provide insights into the effectiveness of potential policy interventions due to our ability to pinpoint changes in mobility rates at local geographies and, potentially, at the level of annual cohorts within such geographies.


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