UK education reforms implemented in 1972, which raised the minimum school leaving age from 15 to 16, failed to improve intergenerational social mobility. That is the central finding of research by Dr Franz Buscha, presented at the Royal Economic Society''s 2014 annual conference.
The study shows that although the reform resulted in an increase in educational attainment in the population as a whole and a weakening of the association between children''s attainment and their parents'' class origin, there was no clear increase in the rate of intergenerational social mobility.
Children who were made to stay on at school for an extra year had no better social class and occupational outcomes relative to their parents compared with children born a little earlier who were not affected by the policy change.
Dr Buscha comments:
''Expansionist education policies cannot be assumed to lead inevitably to higher rates of intergenerational social mobility.
''Policy-makers would be well advised to remember this fact when designing, implementing and justifying expansionist educational policies in the future – such as the most recent raising of the participation age to 17 and 18.''
Over the course of the past 15 years, intergenerational social mobility has come to dominate public and political debate in a manner seldom witnessed for a concept whose origin lies in the academic sociological literature. Spurred by the widespread belief that social mobility in the UK has ''ground to a halt'' and is lower than in comparator nations, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have put fighting declining social mobility at the top of the political agenda.
Within this context, educational reforms, such as the Raising of the Participation Age in 2013 and 2015, have been seen as key components by policy-makers to improving future rates of intergenerational social mobility.
Yet despite the intuitive plausibility of this idea – that more education will result in better social fluidity – the empirical evidence of such an effect is both indirect and weak. To examine the possible effects of the most recent increases in mandatory schooling on future social mobility, this study look backs at the last increase in the school leaving age; the 1 September 1972 Raising of the School Leaving Age (1972 RoSLA) that increased the minimum school leaving age from 15 to 16.
The study uses data from the ONS Longitudinal Study, which is a longitudinally linked 1% sample of the census in England and Wales that makes it possible to trace the evolution of children over time and relate this back to their parental origin. By focusing the methodology on children born immediately before and after the 1972 RoSLA policy, the research can to assess the causal impact of additional education on indicators of social fluidity – the first time this has been done in a UK context.
The findings show that although the reform resulted in an increase in educational attainment in the population as a whole and a weakening of the association between child attainment and parental class origin, there was no reliably discernible increase in the rate of intergenerational social mobility.
Children born after the 1972 RoSLA event had no better social class and occupational outcomes relative to their parents than children who were born before the education event.
In statistical terms, the intergenerational correlation coefficient for children born shortly before the 1972 education reform was 0.30 whilst the same coefficient for those born shortly after the 1972 education reform was 0.29. This difference is not statistically significant and the study therefore concludes that the 1972 education reform did little to improve social fluidity in UK society. Figure 1 presents this relationship graphically.
Various specification tests and different research design consistently produced the same null finding. Further importance is added due to the large sample size of the data (1% of the UK population), which is highly reflective of the broader population. This makes it possible to be confident that the results are not an artefact of research design, of measurement operations or of analytical specification: the educational expansion engendered by the 1972 reform had no effect on intergenerational social mobility.
Although the exact reasons for the failure of the 1972 reform to increase social fluidity are unclear, it seems that expansionist education policies cannot be assumed to lead inevitably, or in any straightforward manner, to higher rates of intergenerational social mobility. Policy-makers would be well advised to remember this fact when designing, implementing and justifying expansionist educational policies in the future – such as the most recent raising of the participation age to 17 and 18.
''Increasing inter-generational social mobility: is educational expansion the answer?'' by Dr Franz Buscha