Sutton Trust forecasts 12% fall in income mobility levels

A new report from the Sutton Trust claims that ‘radical action’ is needed to improve income mobility, such as using lotteries to widen university access

Income mobility levels could drop by as much as 12% in the wake of Covid-related learning loss in schools, according to a report published today (1 June) to mark the 25th anniversary of the Sutton Trust.

Fears over coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on disadvantaged learners have been raised since the early days of the pandemic.

The new report, however, stresses that learning inequalities in the UK are rooted much more deeply than simply the events of the last two years.

“The education system as a whole has failed to function as the great social leveller,” says ‘Social mobility – past, present and future’.

“In terms of absolute social mobility, the evidence suggests that a former golden age of upward mobility has been replaced by a modern era of declining opportunities and more limited upward mobility.”

Between 2000 and 2017, the gap in home ownership rates between those who grew up in rented accommodation compared to owner occupied homes has doubled. This and related trends, warns the report, pose a threat to income mobility for future generations.

It is increasingly clear that stark learning losses suffered disproportionately by poorer pupils during the pandemic will leave long term scars for current generations – Lee Elliot Major, report co-author

While relative educational mobility has improved slightly over the course of this century, the likelihood of securing a university degree still relies in large part on the would-be student’s background.

To overcome this, a “more systematic, longer-term perspective” will be required, says the report.

Thus, while better targeted education policies would be welcome, their effectiveness could only be optimised with improvements to such areas as the home learning environment and the transition between education and work.

“Admissions to highly selective universities remain tilted to the already advantaged,” it adds, “but we must also address the inequities suffered by the half of young people who do not attend university, for example by improving the supply of quality apprenticeships.”

The report is also clear that, when looking to increase social mobility, it is important to distinguish between breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and privilege.

The former is likely to require such relatively uncontroversial steps as “improving basic literacy and numeracy skills, creating new technical jobs in left behind areas, or ensuring minimum pay and training in the workplace”.


Read more: Prof Zahir Irani, deputy vice-chancellor at University of Bradford, warns that the convergence of new economic pressures and tuition fee policies risk harming the sector’s efforts to widen participation


Interrupting cycles of privilege, on the other hand, may necessitate rather more disputatious means. The report cites a 2018 book, ‘Social mobility: and its enemies’, co-written by Lee Elliot Major and Prof Stephen Machin, two of three co-authors of the new report.

“[The book] proposes the use of lotteries alongside threshold criteria to widen access into highly selective universities that supply future elites… While in Britain lotteries might seem a contentious idea, in the US they are seen as self-evidently fair.”

Speaking as the report was published, Elliot Major added:

“It is increasingly clear that stark learning losses suffered disproportionately by poorer pupils during the pandemic will leave long term scars for current generations. Unless radical action is taken, our research suggests they face worsening mobility prospects.”

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