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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Fair Access to the Professions

The final report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions chaired by Alan Milburn is released today. I can't pretend I have read all of it but my impression is that it doesn't contain much that is new. It does though reinforce some unhelpful confusions. Pace the report, doing better than your parents because of general economic growth doesn't have any necessary implications for equalizing relative mobility chances and equalizing relative mobility chances does imply - even if politicos don't like it - that the less meritorious sons and daughters of the middle classes are less likely to attain occupational positions as good - in relative terms - as those of their parents. Just because the pie is bigger and therefore everone's slice is bigger in absolute terms doesn't change the fact that some people's slice is twice, three times, four times...bigger than other's. And claiming that equalization of access to desirable positions implies no downward mobility is like pretending that it never rains in Britain during the Summer because you would prefer it to be sunny all the time.

Having said that, the central message of the report is broadly correct. Social background does matter for economic success in ways that are unjust and economically inefficient and whatever progress there has been towards equalizing opportunities in the last 40 years or so has been small compared to the magnitude of the inequality in life chances for children from different social class backgrounds. While the report probably exaggerates (negatively) Britain's comparative position in the world social mobility league it is true that despite our rhetoric we are a middle of the table team. If we were a schoolchild our end of term report would read: 'Could do better if she tried harder'. The report can be read at:
One thing the report makes something of is the lack of good quality survey data on the social class origins of people in the workforce. It then baulks at the cost of collecting data by monitoring recruitment to professional positions. Why not simply add a couple of questions on parental social background to just one of the quarters of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey? Response rates to the QLFS are high, the sample size is large - allowing EO monitoring at quite a detailed level - and the marginal cost of a couple of extra questions must be comparatively small. Some of us have been calling for this for years. Why is nobody in the Cabinet Office listening? If you really want to know the answers then you have to ask the questions.

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