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Insights from the Social Mobility Commissions Report

The report on 'Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility' by Social Mobility Commission relates to the analysis of the effects of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status on life chances in the education system and the labour market (Shaw, et al., 2016). The key findings of this report are relates to the link between White British vulnerability and school underperformance; Black penalty in secondary and higher education; the link between lower social mobility and gender, particularly in the context of Asian Muslim women; and female underperformance in STEM subjects (Shaw, et al., 2016). The report makes specific recommendations for government, universities, schools and early years providers related to the barriers faced by these groups. The groups of poor white British and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) are also part of the recommendations made by the report (Shaw, et al., 2016). The use of pupil ability as a way of categorising pupils is discouraged in the report (Shaw, et al., 2016). The report recommends that the schools, universities and employers should provide targeted support to Muslim women in helping them achieve their ambitions and progress in their professional careers (Shaw, et al., 2016). The report emphasises on the need to address the low achievement in schools for poor white British students and black students (Shaw, et al., 2016). This literature review considers the wider literature on social mobility and the effect of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status on social mobility.


Bertaux and Thompson (2006) emphasise that social mobility processes are “integral to the metabolism and core regulation of societies, both their continuity and change over time” (p.1). They argue that the processes of social mobility are essential to the lead to the reproduction and transformation of class and status. In the UK, as this report points out, the changes in social mobility which should have come with respect to those who are disadvantaged, are not coming because there are still significant gaps between different groups. Particular attention needs to be given to the poor White pupils, pupils from Roma communities, Asian Muslim women, and pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils (Shaw, et al., 2016). An earlier study has confirmed that there are significant differences in attainment of students from different social groups (Alexander, Weekes-Bernard, & Arday, 2015). This study indicates that Indian and Chinese students consistently outperform children from White backgrounds, and that the African- Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students continue to lag behind the White and Indian and Chinese students (Alexander, et al., 2015). The study indicates that race, class and gender do impact the educational attainments of the students (Alexander, et al., 2015).

The issue of inclusion is an important one when we consider social mobility processes. In context of school education, the idea of educational equity has been developed to ensure that all pupils get access to education. This has been explained by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as having two dimensions, the first dimension being that of fairness, and the second being that of inclusion (OECD, 2008). Fairness refers to the concept that personal and social circumstances like gender, race, or class, should not be obstacles to achieving the learning outcomes and attainment in school (OECD, 2008). Inclusion refers to ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all pupils (OECD, 2008).

In the UK, statutory steps have been taken to ensure that people do not face discrimination and disadvantage based on certain personal circumstances, the most important being the Equality Act 2010, which emphasises on the inclusiveness and respect for diversity. Literature on education and inclusiveness indicates that lack of inclusiveness can be responsible for lower student outcomes and attainment (Alexander, et al., 2015).

The particular issues that are noted by the 'Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility' report is that there is a larger socio-economic gap in the early years is larger for ‘White British’ and ‘White Other’ groups than other minority ethnic groups (Shaw, et al., 2016). In terms of school performance, there are significant differences between the achievements of disadvantaged ‘White British’ and ‘White Other’ pupils who are the lowest performing groups at primary and secondary school. Furthermore, disadvantaged White British pupils are the slowest progressing group in the higher secondary stage, which is a matter of concern for this group in terms of social mobility (Shaw, et al., 2016). In Math and English, some groups are underperforming; particularly in the group of Pakistani/Bangladeshi pupils. In higher education level, the group that is the least likely to access colleges and universities are people from White British backgrounds. Only 1 in 10 of the poorest White people who attend university, which is significantly lower than Black Caribbean people (3 in 10), Bangladeshis (5 in 10), and lower income Chinese (7 in 10) (Shaw, et al., 2016). However, the trends also indicate that despite the lesser access to higher education of poor White people, they fare better than ethnic minority groups with respect to employment rates (Shaw, et al., 2016). The report specifically notes:

“Young people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely than ever to succeed in education and go on to university, girls even more so than boys. Yet these outcomes are not yet being translated into labour market returns – with unemployment particularly prevalent amongst Bangladeshi women, and both Pakistani men and women are relatively unlikely to secure managerial or professional occupations” (Shaw, et al., 2016, p. 4).

This indicates that there is an impact of race and ethnicity which moderates the influence of social-economic factors on social mobility of these groups. Race remains an important factor in how people experience social mobility processes because there is an important aspect of discrimination, which has an impact on how social groups experience education, employment and housing (Briggs, 2012). In significant ways, social mobility, discrimination, and racism are linked; recent disturbances within the society including rioting on some occasions are reflection of the feelings of racism and its impact on social mobility (Briggs, 2012).

Education is one of the most important aspects of the social mobility processes (Bertaux & Thompson, 2006). However, different studies have shown how race, gender, class and ethnicity affect the way social groups access education and how the barriers in this access leads to the barriers in achieving social mobility for certain groups (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000; HEFCE , 2005; Alexander, et al., 2015). These studies have been conducted in the area of inclusion and schools (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000; HEFCE , 2005; Alexander, et al., 2015). The central point is that there are issues related to inequalities in the educational system which are resultant of the factors of race, class, and gender (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000).

The seminal Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which was conducted into the circumstances surrounding the Stephen Lawrence murder and its investigation by the British police noted that race and ethnicity are the two most prominent factors for inequalities within British institutions, including educational institutions (Macpherson, 1999). It emphasised that racism impacts all aspects of society, including educational institutions starting with the primary schools and going up to institutions of higher learning (Macpherson, 1999). Racism in English schools was specifically observed on with the report mentioning that some small children of primary and pre-primary ages have also been known to demonstrate racist behaviour, which is a matter of concern and reflects on the state of racism in the society, further noting:

“There is evidence that there are difficulties in getting some schools individually or locally to acknowledge and tackle racism even where local education authorities have sought to persuade them to do so. The lack of powers available to local education authorities and the fear of negative publicity by schools clearly combine to make anti-racist policies, even where they exist, ineffective” (Macpherson, 1999, para 6.56).

Some communities have responded to the lack of inclusiveness or prevalence of racism in schools with initiatives that are meant to provide more support to students; a good example is the African-Carribbean community, which has established African-Caribbean schools that provide education to members of the community (Chevannes & Reeves, 2012). These schools also respond to the fact that many students from African-Caribbean communities are from low socioeconomic backgrounds by providing free tuition to students from poor African Caribbean families (Chevannes & Reeves, 2012).

Apart from race and ethnicity, class and gender are also important factors that moderate the experience of social groups with social mobility with the impact especially felt in the area of attainment levels in the school (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000; Kelly, 2006; Hatcher, 2006). Gender affects the way people access education and their achievements and attainments in schools (Kelly, 2006). Social class also leads to differentiation in the educational sector as noted below:

“The gap between the best and worst performers in our system actually widens as they go through education; and it is both significantly wider and more closely related to socio-economic status in this country than else-where (DfES , 2004, p. para 23).

Class and economic inequalities are responsible for the significant differences in pupil outcomes and attainment in schools (DfES , 2004; HEFCE , 2005). Young people from the most well-off class groups are six times more likely to go to university than young people from the poorest class groups, which is a strong indication of impact of class on social mobility (HEFCE , 2005). Children from immigrant backgrounds also experience the effects of lack of English language proficiency in their access to early education and achievements in school. This has been noted in a report commissioned jointly by the Cabinet Office, Social and Mobility Child Poverty Commission and the Early Intervention Foundation, which recommended that Social and Emotional Literacy be applied in schools so that small children and young people are motivated in a positive way (Feinstein, 2015).

For women belonging to certain social groups, the intersection between race and gender plays a role in placing them at an even more disadvantaged position; this is particularly true for women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities who earn less than their counterparts from other ethnic minority groups, despite educational attainments (Shaw, et al., 2016). The report considers that there are many factors that are responsible for this lower prospects for women from these backgrounds including discrimination and cultural norms within their own communities, with the report specifically noting that “discrimination in the workplace puts some groups, in particular Muslim women, at a disadvantage preventing them from translating educational attainment into labour market returns….a range of factors give rise to these differences including cultural norms, family and individual expectations, as well as geography and discrimination” (Shaw, et al., 2016, p. 4). Women from these groups are also the lowest performers in the STEM subjects (Shaw, et al., 2016).

Race and discrimination per se does not provide an explanation for lower attainment as the case of Indian and Chinese students show because these groups are consistently the best performing at all stages of education (Shaw, et al., 2016). The intersection between race and class, or race and gender may explain why some groups perform lesser than the others. Communities like Indian and Chinese have higher socio-economic status, which may explain their higher attainment and access to education and social mobility. The report notes that “family effects play an important role in explaining the high attainment of some ethnic minority groups” and that “parental expectations contribute to some of the differences in ethnic groups” although it is not clear whether parental expectations play a role in creating “gendered” career choices and impacting social mobility in the context of gender (Shaw, et al., 2016, p. 28).

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Alexander, C., Weekes-Bernard, D., & Arday, J. (2015). The Runnymede School Report Race, Education and Inequality in Contemporary Britain. London: Runnymede.

Bertaux, D., & Thompson, P. R. (2006). Pathways to Social Class: A Qualitative Approach to Social Mobility. Transaction Publishers.

Briggs, D. (2012). What we did when it happened: a timeline analysis of the social disorder in London. Safer communities , 11(1), 6-16.

Chevannes, M., & Reeves, F. (2012). The Black voluntary school movement: definition, context and prospects. In B. Troyna (Ed.), Racial Inequality in Education (pp. 147-169). Oxon: Routledge.

DfES . (2004). Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners. London. Feinstein, L. (2015). Social and Emotional Learning: Skills for Life and Work. Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office. London: Early Intervantion Programme.

Gillborn, D., & Mirza, H. (2000). Inequality: Mapping Race, Class and Gender: A synthesis of research evidence. London: Office for Standards in Education.

Hatcher, R. (2006). Social class and schooling: differentiation or democracy? In M. Cole (Ed.), Education, Equality and Human Rights: issues of Gender,‘Race’, Sexuality, Disability and Social class (pp. 202-225). Oxford: Routledge.

HEFCE . (2005). Young Participation in Higher Education. London: HEFCE.

Kelly, J. (2006). Women thirty-five years on: Still unequal after all this time. In M. Cole (Ed.), Education, Equality and Human Rights: issues of Gender,‘Race’, Sexuality, Disability and Social class (2 ed., pp. 7-21). Oxford: Routledge.

Macpherson, S. W. (1999). THE STEPHEN LAWRENCE INQUIRY. The Stationary Office. OECD. (2008). Ten Steps to Equity in Education.

Shaw, B., Menzies, L., Bernardes, E., Baars, S., Nye, P., & Allen, R. (2016). Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility. London: Social Mobility Commission.

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