UK and US Much Less Socially Mobile Than Australia and Canada

Children from poorer families in Australia and Canada have a much greater chance of doing well at school, getting into university and earning more in later life than children in the United States and the United Kingdom.

This is despite the fact that Australia and Canada alongside the UK and US are among the countries with the biggest income gaps between the rich and poor. The US and UK also spend a greater proportion of their Gross Domestic Product on schooling.

The latest international research findings, compiled for a two-day summit on social mobility in London organized by the Sutton Trust and Carnegie Corporation of New York, are the first to compare and contrast education and social mobility levels in the four major English-speaking countries. Many of the key findings are based on a new book Parents to Children published to coincide with the summit by the US-based Russell Sage Foundation.

Australia and Canada are around twice as mobile as the UK and US, according to the analysis produced for the summit by Professor Miles Corak from the University of Ottawa, one of the world’s leading experts on mobility.

Other evidence presented at the summit finds stark educational differences between the two pairs of countries at different stages of the educational process.

At the age of 4-5 children from the poorest fifth of homes are already 21.6 months behind children from the richest homes in the US and 19 months behind in the UK. The equivalent gaps for the other two countries are 14.5 months in Australia and 10.6 months in Canada, two countries where children are much less likely to be living in single parent households.

Education gaps between poorer children and their richer peers widen in the UK and the US as they grow older. In the UK this widening accelerates at age 11 at the start of secondary school.

By the time they reach 15, students in Canada and Australia perform much better on average in international reading tests.  Also the proportion of 15-year-olds who are functionally illiterate (below level 2 in PISA tests) is 14.2% in Australia and 10.3% in Canada. This compares with 18.4% and 17.6% in the UK and the US.

Children in the UK and US are at least twice as likely to have been born to teenage mothers as children in Australia and Canada.

In England meanwhile students from the highest social class groups are three times more likely to go to university than those from the lowest classes. In the US they are twice as likely. There is a 46% gap in England between the 65% of students from richer families going to university and the 19% from poorer families.  In America the gap is 36% while in Australia it is 32%.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Improving social mobility in the UK is our most pressing social and long term economic challenge. If we can understand the reasons for the much higher levels of social mobility in nations such as Canada and Australia, which otherwise have much in common with the UK including similar levels of inequality, then the hope is that we can develop policies that will improve the life prospects in this country of the millions of children from non-privileged backgrounds.”

Professor Corak said: “The tie between the educational attainment of children and the educational attainment of their parents is much tighter in the UK than not just Australia, Canada but also the vast majority of comparable rich countries.”

According to the analysis by Professor Corak, intergenerational income mobility is significantly worse in the US and the UK, than in Canada or Australia. On a descending scale from 1 to 0, where 1 represents total income immobility, and 0 represents complete mobility, Canada scores 0.25, Australia 0.26, while the US and UK do much worse on 0.47 and 0.50 respectively.

The research suggests that the UK is characterized by a particularly strong link in the education outcomes from one generation to the next.