The long shadow of deprivation: differences in opportunities

Social Mobility Commission


Social mobility in England is a postcode lottery, with large differences across areas in both the adult pay of disadvantaged sons and the size of the pay gap for sons from deprived families, relative to those from affluent families.

Both the adult earnings of sons from disadvantaged families, and the difference in pay between sons from the most and the least disadvantaged families, vary a lot between local authorities in England. Depending on where they grew up, sons from disadvantaged families can earn on average up to twice as much as similar sons who grew up elsewhere in the country. The difference in adult earnings between sons from the richest and poorest families who grew up in the least mobile areas is up to two and a half times as large as the difference in earnings between sons who grew up in the most mobile areas.

This is not a simple story of north versus south or urban versus rural. Local authorities with the worst outcomes include cities like Sheffield and Bradford. Areas with lower pay for disadvantaged sons and less equality of opportunity are typically more deprived, with lower house prices, fewer labour market opportunities in professional occupations and fewer education opportunities in ‘Outstanding’ schools.

Education gaps between sons from poor and wealthy families explain, on average, around 80% of the gap in adult earnings between them. While sons from the least deprived families have significantly better educational performance than their disadvantaged counterparts in all areas, the size of this achievement gap varies. In authorities where the difference in educational attainment is largest, sons from the most well-off families score 50 percentiles higher in the age 16 test score distribution than sons from the least well-off families. This gap is over twice as large as in the areas with the smallest gaps in educational achievement.

In the most socially mobile areas, gaps in educational performance explain virtually all of the earnings gap. In the least mobile areas, however, relative educational performance explains only two-thirds of the adult pay gap. This suggests that reducing educational gaps would reduce pay gaps, but would not reduce differences in mobility across local authorities. To ‘level up’ between areas, it is necessary to look beyond education.

This new evidence indicates additional areas in which government should consider expanding programmes – in particular Opportunity Areas. It also suggests that, in line with previous Commission recommendations, there is a strong rationale for deepening the Opportunity Areas programme in particular places, developing and trialling ‘what works’ aimed at improving labour market outcomes.

This report makes use of newly linked administrative data on all state-educated pupils born between 1986 and 1988 to follow a group of sons from where they grew up, looking at their family circumstances and their educational achievement, through to the labour market.

The full report is available here.