Lee Elliot Major: “Social mobility is both a personal and professional passion”


Lee Elliot Major OBE is a Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, the first of his field in Britain – and possibly the world. In his published works, Major highlights class inequalities and their impact on young people’s education; Major’s most recent book, What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility?, discusses the Covid-19 pandemic and how it is making social divides even more distinct. Palatinate spoke to Major about his own experience, the chaos of A-level results day, and the ways in which universities like Durham could be doing more to combat social inequality.

First generation

Major was born into a West London working-class family and was the first to go to university. He explains that, for him, “social mobility is both a personal and professional passion”. One of the things driving Major is the knowledge that in the current day “someone from my sort of background probably would find it even harder to get on in life than I did a generation ago.”

“If you looked at me when I was age 15, I would have been a statistic that would convince you that my prospects were not very good. I was living on my own. My mum and dad had split up I had essentially dropped out of school. I flunked my exams and had to go back and retake my A-levels.”

Major reflects on what helped him recover from that position. “For me personally, education was transformative. I think it was certain people in my life that encouraged me and gave me support. At all of those junctions in your life, if you have someone who believes in you and supports you, I think you’ve got a chance. The problem is that many young, talented people fall by the wayside at those key transition points. And if you don’t progress at those points then that can put your life back quite a lot.”

teachers […] are more likely to under-predict those students from poorer backgrounds

“If you’re living in a house with cramped conditions, no internet, possibly with people disrupting you – that’s hard. For me, that was really difficult. When I was that age, I didn’t have a stable home. Stability is really important at that age.”

As a self-confessed “eternal student”, Major went on to do a PhD in theoretical physics and a Master’s in journalism, before moving to London to work as an education journalist. He jokes, “In those days, you could just about get a flat in London by doing freelance jobs and you could just about get a job in journalism if you didn’t know anyone in that world. Now, it’s just much harder for someone like me.”

even then, in the early 90s, we were talking about those issues

In Major’s work as an education journalist, he found that the issue of social mobility was pervasive, although “the term wasn’t even used at that point. It was really about social equity and class gaps. I did loads of reports about the lack of access to prestigious institutions. Even then, in the early 90s, we were talking about those issues.”

Major explains how this enabled him to transition back into academia. “There was always a bit of me that wanted to go into these issues in more depth and that’s when this post – Professor of Social Mobility – came up. We think I’m the first in the world. What I’ve found is that the subject of social mobility and the demand for my expertise has gone up exponentially over the last couple of years, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, because we’ve done a lot of research around widening inequalities. It’s a topic that will probably become even more mainstream over the next few years.”

The results day crisis

Arguably one of the defining moments of 2020 for many young people was A-Level results day, in which students were awarded a grade determined by an algorithm based on a school’s expected performance. Although this decision was soon reversed and replaced with teacher predicted grades, the initial chaos ultimately brought issues of social inequality and educational access to light.

I hope this summer will not be the debacle of last summer

Major describes a session in parliament for the House of Commons Education Committee before results day: “The thing that I was pushing for was clarity as soon as possible. It was all a bit of a mess really. Because I’m a professor of sociology, my angle is always: how is this fair for people from disadvantaged backgrounds? I’m not sure if those questions were asked as much as they could have been. To be fair to the government and schools, all of this was unprecedented. We were all having to improvise to some extent – but my view was that we needed clarity much earlier on. And that’s the same message that I’m giving out at the moment for next year’s exams. I’m proposing a few things that the government has at least acknowledged.”

One of Major’s suggestions is that exam boards could flag students who have suffered particularly extreme learning loss. “There might be some sort of asterisk or star alongside your A-level grade. This would be for a minority of cases where the teachers felt that the candidate had suffered a significant learning loss during the year. The education secretary acknowledged that proposal and said that they were looking into it. It’s good as an expert when you propose something and it actually sticks!”

there will be some really big social disquiet

He points out, however, that teacher assessments are not much fairer to working-class students than the algorithm. “Teachers – for all their good intentions – are more likely to under-predict those students from poorer backgrounds, particularly when you look at A-levels. Among higher preforming students, you consistently see this under-prediction for students from poorer backgrounds.”

Major adds, “I hope this summer will not be the debacle of last summer. I worry particularly about the current A-level students, because they’re the ones who suffered huge learning loss. In many ways, last year’s students just caught the beginning of the pandemic. For this group coming through, it’s even more challenging.”

A universal approach

Last year, Durham University faced criticism after a number of incidents recorded exposed a culture of social exclusion among its students. Major argues that, while the debates around university access are really important, equally as important “is what happens to students when they’re at the university. What support are we providing both pastorally and academically for students from all backgrounds? And I think that’s going to become a big issue for universities over the years as we see the Covid generation coming through. We’re going to need to give them more support on campus. I’m not sure if some of the more prestigious universities are as geared up for that as they could be.”

Major admits that he doesn’t know many university programmes aimed at combatting social exclusion of which he could confidently say, ‘Yes, every university should be doing this.’

“All I can say is that there is increasing evidence that if you don’t come from a certain background in places like Durham, Exeter, and other prestigious universities then you can feel excluded in all sorts of ways. That’s as important for the clubs, the societies, and the social environment as the academic environment. I know that universities do think about this but they could do much more to make everything that we do inclusive, like how we do our lectures; with the blended approach that many universities are developing because of Covid, we need to think about how we can utilise that to ensure that no one is left behind because of their background.”

many young, talented people fall by the wayside at those key transition points

“I think institutions need to look at themselves from a social mobility perspective. It’s also about the diversity of the workforce and who you employ and the culture of the organisations. It’s not just about enrolling a few more working-class students – it’s how we look at the culture of our institution and making sure our own employees from a diverse range of backgrounds. It has to be a full approach.”

Major is careful to add a caveat to this, acknowledging that universities can only do so much: “I do think that highly selective universities can be more radical but you have to put it into context. Inequalities outside the education system are growing. If you’re serious about social mobility, as a politician, you have to address those profound inequalities in society. official access targets for highly selective institutions like Durham are incredibly ambitious – they’re trying to get the institutions to reflect the bounds of society more generally. I did a report on this and we found that on current progress rates it will take at least 100 years to get to a student population that reflects wider society. You need to address inequalities outside of the education system first.”

Widening divides

Major explains how, even before the pandemic, there was significant evidence that social mobility levels were going down and class divides were widening. “For every generation since the war, broadly speaking the prospects and earnings have gone up compared to the previous generation. As you grow up, you generally do slightly better (or a lot better for some generations) than your parents in terms of work opportunities and average earnings. But what we’ve found is that the under 25s in this country are the generation that is on average doing less well than its parents’ generation, partly triggered by the global recession of 2008.”

inequalities outside the education system are growing

Major attributes this to growing inequality, “not just in terms of income, but all sorts of aspects of society are becoming more divided. There is a group of people at the very top who have the majority of the wealth and opportunities – and increasingly the average is comparing poorly with the generation before.”

“That was the grim prospect pre-Covid. What we’re finding in our research now is that the inequalities in education are widening; for example, when we estimated who was getting a full school day in the first lockdown period, privately educated pupils were twice as likely to have a full school day than their state school counterparts – and a quarter of children were not getting any education at all! These are stark divides and we think that this will translate to a bigger divide in academic outcome. The actual results will be even more polarised in terms of where you come from.”

Major adds, “At the same time, we’re finding that unemployment rates are higher for the under 25s compared to the over 25s. We have no doubt that this pandemic is hitting the under 25s particularly and all of this is bad for social mobility. We also surveyed university students and we found similar gaps in learning loss, in that students from poorer backgrounds were more likely to suffer greater learning loss. We also found widespread concerns about wellbeing in the students we surveyed.”

privately educated pupils were twice as likely to have a full school day

Despite the grim reality of his research, Major anticipates change in the future. “Some of my friends say, ‘Lee, you’ve got to calm down a bit’ because I think I see life through this lens of social mobility. But it’s an important issue for me and I hope that your generation will challenge the powers-that-be on class divides. I hope that your generation will rise up ­– because if we don’t, I worry about your prospects. Unless the government do some really big things like having a wealth tax and radical education reforms and guaranteeing work for young people, there will be some really big social disquiet. We will see. I hope it happens in my lifetime.”

What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Social Mobility? by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin is available for purchase.

Image: Lee Elliot Major © Tristram Kenton

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