Social inequality is persistent and systemic
The UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe, with levels of socio-economic inequality comparable to the USA.1 The poorest half of the population receives around 20 per cent of all incomes and the richest half receives the remaining 80 per cent.2 Poor health, educational performance, and weak social mobility are all features of our unequal society.
The effects of this inequality on health have been played out starkly over recent months, with deprived areas having twice the rate of deaths involving Covid-19 than more affluent areas3. There are strong indications that school closures will result in a reversal of the progress made to narrow the gap in attainment over the last decade4. The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified existing inequalities as defined by income, place, health and ethnicity.
Countries with the highest levels of income inequality have the lowest levels of social mobility.5 According to the Social Mobility Commission, in Great Britain, social mobility has ‘stagnated’ over the last four years across all stages, from birth to work6.
While there has been a significant increase in participation in higher education amongst individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds over the last five years, this rate conceals structural inequality across the higher education system. Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately represented at the most selective universities that confer a premium in the labour market; and across the sector, individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to drop out of study and have weaker outcomes than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds. The issue has shifted from being “primarily about exclusion from the system to being about exclusion within it”7.
Individuals who are ‘upwardly mobile’ face considerable obstacles in getting in and getting on in Britain’s professions,8 and high status professions remain dominated by individuals from higher socio-economic backgrounds9.
As a result of this inequality, where you come from (your place and family background) plays a pivotal role in shaping your trajectory through education and into the labour market. People from lower socio-economic groups often encounter barriers to success across the lifecourse,10 whereas those from higher socio-economic groups typically have higher educational attainment, secure a graduate job, and receive higher earnings.11 In the UK’s competitive education system and labour market, those who maximise their early advantage are most likely to succeed.
For decades, research on educational inequality has concentrated on the school sector where there has been a striking and persistent attainment gap between children from lower and higher socio-economic groups.12 In more recent years, the evidence base has grown to expose the reproduction of inequality in higher education and the labour market. This has heightened the need for joined-up, cross-sector and collaborative approaches to respond to the scale of the challenge.
Why social equality is better for everyone
The pursuit of fairness is a key motivator to reduce the social differences between people and create more equal outcomes, but it’s also a matter of societal success.
Greater social diversity is vital to improve educational, economic and creative performance. 13 Improved productivity and health and greater social cohesion are all features of more equal societies. 14 For example, the Boston Consulting Group concluded that “failing to improve low levels of social mobility will cost the UK economy up to £14 billion a year by 2050 - or an additional 4% of Gross Domestic Product”. 15 There are also lessons to be learned from the international context regarding higher levels of equality giving rise to improved health and prosperity.
Yet despite evidence that increased social equality is vital to improve health and educational standards, and generate higher productivity, there is no current national strategy for coordinating action. Until there is such a coordinated, government-led approach, it is the collective responsibility of stakeholders across sectors to improve understanding of the scale of the problem through monitoring, design strategies to reduce the effects of inequality and foster social mobility and promote socio-economic diversity and inclusion within organisations.
- Income gap data: https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm
- Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin. Danny Dorling. (2014) Inequality and the 1%. Verso.
- Billy Palmer. (2020) Covid-19 kills people in the most deprived areas at double the rate of those in the most affluent. Nuffield Trust https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/chart-of-the-week-covid-19-kills-the-most-deprived-at-double-the-rate-of-affluent-people-like-other-conditions?gclid=CjwKCAjwt-L2BRA_EiwAacX32RGFdQIpHqNiW7Oz8-eKRJUXtGyFrVMuWxnMIx2CgOigh_YM4lFd8RoCv6cQAvD_BwE
- Education Endowment Foundation. (2020) Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: rapid evidence assessment: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/EEF_(2020)_-_Impact_of_School_Closures_on_the_Attainment_Gap.pdf
- Jo Blanden. 2009 How much can we learn from international comparisons of intergenerational mobility?
- Social Mobility Commission. State of the Nation Report 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/79840 4/SMC_State_of_the_Nation_Report_2018-19.pdf. There is much debate around the way in which intergenerational mobility rates are calculated and therefore this is addressed further in appendix X.
- Diane Reay. (2017) Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes. Bristol: Policy Press.
- Upwardly mobile refers to someone occupying a higher employment status than their parents according to the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification.
- Sam Friedman et al. (2020) Elites in the UK: Pulling Away: Social mobility, geographic mobility and elite occupations. Sutton Trust.
- These barriers are variously a product of financial hardship and lower levels of educational attainment amongst parents of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. See Erzsébet Bukodi and John Goldthorpe. (2013) Decomposing ‘social origins’: the effects of parents’ class, status, and education on the educational attainment of their children. European Sociological Review. Vol. 29: Issue 5.
- Claire Crawford and Anna Vignoles. (2014) Heterogeneity in graduate earnings by socioeconomic background. IFS Working Paper. https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/wps/WP201430.pdf; Sam Friedmand and Daniel Laurison. (2020) The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged. Policy Press.
- The gap emerges in early years and is evident by the time children begin school in Reception. By the end of secondary school, this gap is 19.3 months. Education Endowment Fund. (2017) The Attainment Gap. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Annual_Reports/EEF_Attainment_Gap_Report_ 2018.pdf
- Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui. (2019) How trajectories of disadvantage help explain school attainment. SAGE Open. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244018825171; McKinsey and Company. (2015) Why diversity matters. Arts Council. Creative Case for Diversity; Bridge Group and Jerwood Foundation
- Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone and The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well- being (2018). Penguin.
- Boston Consulting Group. (2010) The Mobility Manifesto. The Sutton Trust.