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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Description The project consists of two strands: 1) exploring and charting the spatial variation in social mobility in England and Wales and 2) examining the (causal) relationship between selective schooling (e.g. grammar schools) and social mobility rates.

For 1) our findings show considerable spatial variation in rates of absolute and relative mobility as well as how these have changed over time. Some local authorities have rate of immobility that are 5 x times higher than the "best" performing local authorities. Moreover, while rates of upward mobility increased in every region between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, this upward shift varied across different parts of the country, and tailed off for more recent cohorts. At a sub-national level, the regions in the North of England and Wales faced the most pronounced levels of social immobility in the first cohort (born 1953-63), when labour markets in these areas were concentrated in traditional industrial and manufacturing sectors. For the second birth cohort, born 1963-73, these areas experienced a 'catch-up' in absolute and relative mobility rates, moving closer to the levels observed in the more affluent Southern regions, as their occupational structures shifted toward managerial and professional occupations. However, despite this regional convergence, the upward shift in mobility between the first two cohorts effectively petered out for the most recent cohort (born 1973-83), with the majority of regions seeing either smaller, or in some cases no further increases in mobility. We also explore the role of domestic migration in understanding these temporal and spatial patterns, finding that those who stayed in their region of origin had lower rates of upward mobility compared to those who moved out, although this difference also narrowed over time. While policy discussion has focused almost entirely on national-level trends in social mobility, our results emphasise the need to also consider persistent spatial inequalities.

2) Using data created in 1) we investigate to what extent selective schooling changes (abolition of 11+ system) led to differential patterns in social mobility across England and Wales. Over the last five decades the share of pupils in academically selective schools declined sharply and differentially by area. We exploit this variation using a panel data model which adjusts for area- and year effects. Our analyses fail to detect a link between selective schooling systems and social mobility measured 20 years later. These findings are robust to comprehensive battery of robustness checks.

3) Overall, our empirical findings point towards significant variation in social mobility rates across small scale geographic in England and Wales whilst the abolition of Grammar schools did not seem to significantly affect local social mobility rates. Both results have modern policy relevance.

4) Additional work was done in examining home ownership mobility across different ethnicities in the UK and our data source in 1) was distributed to various other researchers to help them investigate the impact of social mobility differences across small regions in the UK.

5) The grant extension expire in Jan 2022 and currently our academic papers are under review at journals. Impact presentations at academia and policy makers have taken place and are scheduled.
Exploitation Route Our findings will likely shape other related literature and government thinking on social mobility policies. The determination that significant fluctuations in life opportunity are regionally bound, even small regions, are likely to lead to a reassessment of how national policies should be implemented and what can be done to better increase social fluidity. The data from our work directly leads to our sub-projects that seeks to examine to what extent selective (grammar) schooling led to changes in social mobility. These findings are likely to be used by the department for education to underpin future policies around grammar schools.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Linking our Lives Blog Entry 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The CeLSIUS team at UCL, helps to produce blogs and articles for the public on research which uses the ONS-LS data. They created a website, "Linking our Lives", which disseminates research. A bespoke blog writer took our research findings, turned it into a public narrative and published it on the website for public dissemination.

This blog post and the associated academic paper led to the research team being contacted by the Resolution Foundation who requested access to the underlying data in our maps of social mobility. They intend to use this data for further research in their project that focuses on the future economy in 2030. (
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021