Scottish Longitudinal Study
Development & Support Unit

Current Projects

Project Title:

Education and Social Mobility: a Comparison of three British Cohorts

Project Number:



Lindsay Paterson (University of Edinburgh)
Chris Dibben (University of Edinburgh)

Start Date:

October 2016



The interaction between education and social mobility has been a core sociological question as well as a prominent policy question for half a century. Can expanding education foster greater social mobility? Alternatively, is social mobility mainly driven by the changing structure of the labour market? If the latter is a more accurate description of the processes, then the main reason for the expanding social mobility in societies such as Britain in the second half of the twentieth century is the economic shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, reducing the proportion of the labour force in low-status industrial jobs and increasing the opportunities for higher-status service jobs. The expansion of education might have facilitated this process – insofar as service jobs tend to require educational credentials to a much greater extent than low-status manufacturing jobs – but would not itself have been the cause of this widening of opportunity. These conclusions have been found for many countries by, for example, Erikson and Goldthorpe (1993) and Breen (2004), and, specifically for the comparison of Scotland, England and Wales, by Paterson and Iannelli (2007a). Bukodi et al. (2014) reached this same conclusion about the paramount importance of the changing  occupational structure from analysing the 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts.

Yet policy makers continue to see educational reform as a way of promoting social mobility (e.g. Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, 2013). One of the reasons for this is, as noted, that education is the mechanism through which other social changes operate. Comparing three widely-separated cohorts will allow insights into the role which education plays.

The comparison will also allow a distinction to be drawn between relative and absolute amounts of education. For example, does possessing a university degree confer the same advantage in the labour market in a cohort (born in 1970) when around 20% of people had gained a university degree by their mid-20s as it does in a cohort (born in 1936) when the corresponding proportion was only 4%? How does that changing level of education interact with the changing occupational structure (so that the proportion by these same ages in professional or semi-professional occupations in the 1970 cohort was 37% compared to 18% in the 1936 cohort)?

Moreover, cohort studies allow a lifecourse approach, since education potentially continues to contribute to occupational opportunity long after early adulthood. Studies of social mobility rarely have the data to look at adult education, and no other study has been able to look at such widely separated cohorts as the new SMS-SLS linkage allows here.


The aim of the analysis is to study the interaction of education and social mobility in three cohorts – the Scottish 1936 birth cohort and the British 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts. Access to the latter two cohorts is not part of the present application.

Four questions will be studied:

(1) Has educational inequality diminished across the three cohorts, and, if so, is that mainly because the overall level of educational participation has risen? This ‘maximally maintained inequality’ (Raftery and Hout, 1993) might be because lower social classes catch up with the highest status classes only when the latter have reached a plateau of educational attainment.

(2) Has social mobility been driven by changes in the occupational structure (the margins of the origins-by-destinations table), rather than by changes in the strength of association of origins and destinations (Breen, 2004)?

(3) Do the answers to questions (1) and (2) vary across the life course?

(4) Has the importance of adult education diminished in importance across these three cohorts, as the formal education system has expanded and become increasingly inclusive of all types of pupil?

These questions can be studied only by using widely separated cohorts: the cohort structure allows educational attainment to be recorded longitudinally, and the distinct periods of the three cohorts allow account to be taken of policy changes and social changes.


Breen, R. (ed.) (2004). Social Mobility in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bukodi, E., Goldthorpe, J. H., Waller, L. and Kuha, J. (2014). 'The mobility problem in Britain: new findings from the analysis of birth cohort data'. British Journal of Sociology, 66, 93-117.

Erikson, R and Goldthorpe, J. H. (1993). The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Paterson, L. and Iannelli, C. (2007a). 'Patterns of absolute and relative social mobility: a comparative study of England, Wales and Scotland'. Sociological Research Online, 12,

Paterson, L. and Iannelli, C. (2007b). 'Social class and educational attainment: a comparative study of England, Wales and Scotland'. Sociology of Education, 80, 330-58.

Raftery, A. E. and Hout, M. (1993). 'Maximally maintained inequality: expansion, reform and opportunity in Irish education, 1921-75'. Sociology of Education, 66, 41-62.

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2013). State of the Nation 2013: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain.

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