Press release

New research exposes the 'glass floor' in British society

Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids.

New research, conducted by Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has exposed the reality of a ‘glass floor’ in British society that protects less able, better-off children from falling down the social ladder as they become adults.

Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said that the ‘glass floor’ is as much a problem as the ‘glass ceiling’ in inhibiting social mobility in Britain.

The research uses the British birth cohort survey to look at the impact that social background has on earnings at age 42 and whether this can be explained by early cognitive ability, qualifications, school type, parental education level and non-cognitive skills such as self-esteem and behaviour.

It finds that children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability.

The research finds that social background and family income have a significant effect on the likelihood of being a high earner even after controlling for meritocratic factors such as cognitive and non-cognitive ability and qualifications achieved. Parental education level and attendance at a private school or a grammar school all have a significant independent impact over-and-above their impact on academic attainment. Remarkably, the research also finds a clear correlation between the social background of a child’s grandfather and eventual labour market success.

The research concludes that better-off, middle-class parents are successful in effectively creating a ‘glass floor’ which protects their children from downward mobility and makes it harder for able children from less advantaged backgrounds to succeed.

The research suggests there are 2 main pillars supporting the ‘glass floor’:

  1. More advantaged parents securing educational opportunities to help their children overcome lack of ability and overtake their more gifted but poorer peers by: * investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications and even to enter higher education - a major stepping stone to a professional job * providing better careers advice and guidance - this is likely to be important in explaining why parental education has such a big impact on their children’s earnings even controlling for qualifications and schooling * placing a high value on polish and ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience * prioritising school choice, with more advantaged parents able to move house to be in the catchment area of a great state school, invest in private tuition to coach their children to pass the 11+ in selective areas, or give their children a private education

  2. More advantaged parents securing advantages for their children into the labour market that are unavailable to less well-off parents by: * helping their children into employment through informal social networks * securing informal and unpaid internships * investing in their children’s ‘soft skills’ which are highly valued in employment recruitment processes

Chair of the commission, Alan Milburn said:

“No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want. But Britain is a long way from being a meritocratic society when the less able can do better in life than the more able.

“It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.

“It’s a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain. The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them.

“A one-nation approach means giving disadvantaged kids access to the support, advice and development opportunities that better-off middle class families take for granted.

“Employers also need to step up to the plate by ensuring that internships aren’t simply reserved for those with the right social contacts and that recruitment processes aren’t skewed to favour polish over potential.”

London School of Economics Senior Research Fellow Dr Abigail McKnight said:

“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

“Children from less advantaged families who show high potential at age 5 are struggling to convert this potential into later labour market success.”

“Schools could do much more to help children from less advantaged families build on high early potential.”

The research makes several key policy implications including:

  • educate parents to improve their skills and perspectives: reducing inequalities in parental education through adult skills programmes, given there appears to be a direct link between parental education and child outcomes
  • ensure children from less advantaged backgrounds have access to the support and opportunities available to their peers: providing opportunities for them to build non-cognitive and ‘soft skills’, providing good careers information and guidance, mentoring and a rich set of opportunities to understand the world of work
  • tackle material deprivation and the financial pressures on parents that undermine their efforts to give their kids the best possible start in life
  • tackle the institutional barriers to aspiration: improving school quality in disadvantaged areas, improving access to high-quality schools and universities (eg admissions procedures), and removing financial barriers to higher education
  • take action to reduce ‘opportunity hoarding’: including tackling unpaid internships, encouraging employers to remove barriers in the recruitment process that inadvertently prevent those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful, and ensuring school selection procedures don’t inadvertently skew access towards those from advantaged backgrounds who can afford extensive private tuition


Paul Johnston, Co-Director of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission


Tel: 0207 783 8402 or 07469 031 848 (Friday to Sunday)

Published 26 July 2015