High fliers are top of the class

19th March 2004 at 00:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

It's official. According to academic psychology, the class war in Britain is over, so you can put your weapons down, shake hands and share a glass of chardonnay.

While you may feel Britain is still a class-ridden society, a key political question is whether we are moving towards a genuine meritocracy where arrival into the top professional and managerial classes has more to do with competence than social background. It's a question close to the heart of New Labour, particularly Tony Blair, who confidently declared as far back as 1997: "The Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy where we break down the barriers of class, religion, race and culture."

Psychologist Daniel Nettle, of the Open University, appears to have confirmed Mr Blair's assessment of contemporary society. A study recently published in the British Journal of Psychology followed the lives of more than 5,000 British men born in the 1950s to investigate the extent of social mobility. The researchers used a battery of educational tests when the cohort was aged 11 and investigated how far this predicted what social class they eventually arrived at in their forties, compared to the social class of their parents.

The first intriguing finding from Dr Nettle's study is that we seem to live in an extraordinarily fluid post-war society, where moving between classes within a generation is the norm. Less than 40 per cent of British men have remained in the same social class as their parents, while nearly 30 per cent have moved up a class and almost 20 per cent have moved two social classes in either direction. Dr Nettle argues that these figures represent genuine social mobility.

He found a very small association between the social class of parents and children. Your performance at school at age 11 is a more powerful predictor of your eventual career success; better school performance increases later occupational success, regardless of which class you are born into.

But perhaps the most radical finding is that working-class children no longer have to be significantly better at school.Dr Nettle found that those moving up tothe higher classes did not have higher intellectual capacity scores at 11 compared with those already in thehigher social classes.

The study concludes that it's how well you do educationally which predicts what social class you eventually attain - and you can move down the classes if you don't do well at school. This finding goes against the view many hold of an informal network of opportunities surrounding certain people and institutions: that it's who you or your parents know that sets you up for success, rather than what you know.

Dr Nettle's research is not just a one-off maverick finding. Rod Bond and Peter Saunders, social scientists at the University of Sussex, recently published a study in the British Journal of Sociology which similarly concluded that class background was much less important in predicting occupational success than an individual's motivation and ability.

Both these studies cast teachers and schools at the heart of any attempt to build a meritocratic society, as they confirm that education is the ticket to social class mobility.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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