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Does Education Promote Social Mobility?
by Cristina Iannelli and Lindsay Paterson No. 35, June 2005

There has been a significant increase in participation in education in Scotland over the past half century. The question remains, however, whether this expansion has helped to reduce social inequalities in educational attainment and contributed to greater social mobility. Many studies have shown that education and the acquisition of educational qualifications are important means through which middle class families pass on their social and economic advantage to their children. In these circumstances, education, rather than promoting greater social mobility, may in fact reduce it. This Briefing considers these issues, drawing on the main findings from the ESRC-funded research project “Education and Social Mobility in Scotland since the Middle of the 20th Century”.

Educational attainment has increased among all social classes in Scotland over the past half century. Nevertheless, social class differences in educational attainment have not significantly reduced. Education explains part of the relationship between parental social class and individuals’ own social class but not all. There is still a strong direct effect of parental class on individuals’ achieved class that is not mediated by education. The relation between family background and the chances of gaining a degree or subdegree changed over time for women but not for men. This may be linked to institutional changes within the tertiary sector which may have affected women more than men. Among people who gained upper-secondary or tertiary qualifications, their parental social class was less of a factor in determining their entry to higher social class positions than among less educated people. Overall the expansion of professional jobs together with the expansion of education has led more people from working class backgrounds to occupy top-level occupations but this has not reduced the gap between...

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