Source AP ©

Britain faces problem of stalled social mobility

British society proved to be riven by class and hostage to privilege.

The study, funded by the education group Sutton Trust, said that there had been no change in the ability of children to improve on their parents' income between 1970 and 2000.

That led the Daily Mail newspaper to call the study "devastating," saying it showed that "class divisions in Britain have deepened and are now among the most entrenched in the world." The Independent warned that poor children were "doomed," while The Spectator said it was shocking that Britain's social mobility had "remained static for 30 years."

But the study's co-author, University of Surrey economist Jo Blanden, said the findings were not so clear-cut and that, in any case, Britons are still better able to improve their lot than their U.S. counterparts.

Blanden said the study measured income and education, not social standing or class.

"As economists we're not wild about the issue of class because we don't know what it really means," she said in a telephone interview.

"In some ways, this is just (an) innocuous piece of research, but it drives everybody mad."

Britons are stereotypically class conscious - and unlike the United States, which abolished titles of nobility in its constitution - Britain's aristocracy still plays an important role in the nation's public and political life.

But the country's fabled "old boys' network," based on family connections or childhood friendships forged at elite public schools, exercises a subtler influence.

Progressive educators, backed by Britain's left-leaning Labour government, have made a determined effort to get rid of it.

Ministers have made public policy out of giving underprivileged children the same opportunities as their privileged peers, and the government has repeatedly pressured Oxford and Cambridge, the country's top universities, to accept more applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only last month, Universities Secretary John Denham complained of the "social bias" at Britain's top universities.

Blanden's research, conducted with London School of Economics professor Steve Machin, suggested the social bias may occur earlier.

It showed that poor but bright British children saw their test scores erode as they got older, falling from the 88th percentile at the age of three to the 65th by the age of five. Less bright children from the richest backgrounds, however, saw their scores improve from the 15th percentile at age 3 to the 45th by age 5.

"If this trend were to continue, the children from affluent backgrounds who are doing poorly at age 3 would be likely to overtake the poorer but initially bright children in test scores by age seven," the study said.

Although dramatic, Blanden said similar gaps in test scores were present in the United States, as well. Evidence showed that Britain was roughly on par with its European peers Spain, Italy, and France in terms of social mobility, and slightly ahead of the United States, she said. Inequalities were in the United State were wider.

So why do the British spend so much time worrying over how easy it is to climb the social ladder?

"I think that there is a certain obsession with these issues in the British psyche," Blanden said. "Not very scientifically, but just as a British person - I think there is an element of that."