In this article, we’ll look at the recent work of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) in highlighting differences in opportunities across England.

We heard from SMC Chief Analyst, Erin Hawkins, on understanding multi-generational disadvantage and how it affects social mobility.

Understanding Social Mobility

Social mobility is the extent to which opportunities are equal for everyone, how much freedom you have to choose the life you want.[1]

The ‘Monitoring Social Mobility 2013-2020′[2] report was the first to show how social mobility varies across small local areas in England. The report also explored why such differences exist.  

The data used to analyse social mobility came from the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset, which links school records, university records, and earnings/employment.

The sample was comprised of 820,000 state-educated sons born between 1986-1988 in England. The SMC looked at their family circumstances aged 16, and their earnings aged 28.

The reason for monitoring data comprised entirely of sons was due to the difficulty in collecting accurate data regarding part-time hours, which women are more likely to work.[1]

The key question throughout the research was ‘what are the differences in earning outcomes across 320 lower-tier local authorities in England?’

Main Findings

The SMC found three key findings from their research:

  • Where you grow up matters to a large extent
  • In the least mobile areas, non-education factors play a larger role
  • To ‘level up’ an area, both education policies and labour market initiatives are required

Where you grow up matters

Social mobility varies widely across local authorities in England. There are large differences across local authorities in pay for disadvantaged sons and the earnings gap between sons from disadvantaged and affluent families.

Areas with the highest earnings for disadvantaged sons have pay that is twice as high as areas with the lowest earnings for disadvantaged sons. The range is from over £20,000 in earnings compared to under £10,000.

Median earning of sons who received free school meals [1]

Interestingly the findings did not support the traditional North vs South or Urban vs Rural themes. Local authorities with some of the worst outcomes are spread across the country, in a variety of environments.

Pay gaps between sons from the richest and poorest families are 2.5x larger for those who grew up in the least mobile areas than in the most.

50 local authorities were identified as having both very low pay for disadvantaged sons and very high pay gaps. This has highlighted places that have been ‘left behind’ and need to be prioritised.[1]  

Non-education factors play a larger role in least mobile areas

In the least-mobile areas more of the pay gap, up to 33%, between sons from rich and poor families is driven by non-education factors of the labour market and family background.

This means that across all areas, education is a key driver of opportunities but differences across areas are explained by factors outside education.

The areas with the lowest gap are on the left, with the highest on the right.[1]

The dark orange areas on the chart highlight educational factors that account for the pay gap, with the faded areas representing factors beyond education that contribute to the pay gap.

As the chart shows, those areas with larger pay gaps show non-educational factors having a larger impact than those with smaller pay gaps.

Some of the more significant non-educational factors are family background and the state of the local labour market.

In Fenland, the median earnings for disadvantaged sons are £12,500 per year. It is in the group with the largest pay gap between the most and least deprived sons.

In East Cambridgeshire, the median earnings for disadvantaged sons are £17,900 per year. This places it in the group with the smallest pay gap between the most and least deprived sons.

Despite the differences, both have a quintile education gap of 3, highlighting that other factors have a significant impact on earnings.

A Combined Approach is Needed

In order to ‘level up’ across areas, a coordinated approach of education policy and labour market initiatives to translate qualifications into good life outcomes.[1]

The fewer opportunities available directly affect earnings. [1]

There can be a whole host of factors that lead to less social mobility, including fewer transport links, disproportionately priced housing compared to wages, and fewer ‘professional’ jobs.

What’s next?

Education explains for an equal amount of the pay gap between sons across all areas, but in areas, with the largest pay gap, the labour market and family background play a larger role.

To tackle this, the SMC has a three-step plan.

Firstly, they are launching a place-based programme. This involves disseminating the information they collected in the report and listening to local leaders to get better ideas and data.

Secondly, there is an emphasis on cross-Whitehall engagement on place interventions and better defining the idea of ‘levelling up.’

This is in the hope of taking a more holistic approach and understanding the multi-faceted requirements of the people living in areas with lower social mobility.

Thirdly, the SMC want better data and measurement. For example, being able to collate a similar report on daughters would be hugely helpful in seeing if gender also comes into play when considering social mobility.


[1] Hawkins, Erin. 2021. Social Mobility Commission. Confronting Multi-Generational Disadvantage: The Long Shadow of Deprivation

[2] Gov.uk. 2021. Monitoring social mobility 2013 to 2020

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Social mobility varies widely across local authorities in England. In this article we’ll look at the recent work of the Social Mobility Commission in highlighting differences in opportunities across England.

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