Did the Telegraph’s James Bartholomew misread an OECD study on social mobility?

The Welfare of Nations author's source doesn't appear to match his claims


James Bartholomew is back in today’s Telegraph. You may recall the Welfare of Nations author saying poverty in Britain was not so bad because most people have electricity and indoor toilets.

His piece today, ‘Britain’s class ceiling is a myth’, makes a number of fantastic points, such as that the government should focus more on removing people’s welfare than ‘worry about barriers to entry at the top’ of society.

But his evidence is scanty. In one case, his source doesn’t appear to match his claims.

Bartholomew cites the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on educational mobility. After saying that, yes, it does help to go to a private or grammar school, he asks:

“But is Britain worse than other countries in this respect? Again the answer is ‘no’. Britain is ninth best out of 30 countries in achieving educational success for children independently of the parents’ socio-economic status according to a comprehensive OECD study in 2010.”

The web version of the story links to the OECD’s Education at a Glance report from 2010, where the information he cites does not appear to be included.

However, there is an OECD study for 2010, the Going for Growth report, which did find Britain ranked ‘ninth out of 30 countries’. But for having the ninth strongest link between socio-economic background of parents and how well a student does in secondary education.

In other words, it says Britain was not the ‘ninth best’, but the ninth worst. (Click to enlarge.)

OECD education

As the report says (p188):

“Austria, the Czech Republic, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States are among the countries where socio-economic background appears to have the largest influence on students’ performance.”

Did Mr Bartholomew misread this graph, or was he referring to another ‘ninth out of 30’ ranking?

Perhaps the Telegraph and the author can clear this up?


While we wait, take a look at the new report by the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, published yesterday and mentioned by Bartholomew, for why his argument that ‘Britain’s class ceiling is a myth’ is nonsense. The numbers tell a different story.

Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter

Read more: 

Telegraph columnist says British poverty isn’t so bad – we have indoor toilets!

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5 Responses to “Did the Telegraph’s James Bartholomew misread an OECD study on social mobility?”

  1. James Bartholomew

    Dear Andrew,

    With regret and embarrassment I have to admit that you are right. On checking I find that you are entirely correct and that Britain is not ranked ‘ninth best out of 30 countries in achieving success for children independently of the parents’ socio-economic status’. Britain is, instead, – as you say – ‘ninth worst’. I apologise for this error.

    I took the data from a secondary source which made this error (unless I misunderstood the secondary source). Of course, ideally I should have checked the original report but I had less than a day to research and write the article.

    While I admit I got this fact wrong, I would like to mention a few things to put it in perspective. While Britain was ‘ninth worst’, the chart shows that we nevertheless did better than quite a few countries with which we often compare ourselves including Germany, France, the Netherlands and the USA. The point I was making was that Britain is not, as some like to claim, exceptionally bad in its social mobility. Part of the case is that it is not exceptionally bad in its educational mobility.

    The OECD paper which we are both referring to has a variety of measures and it is true that on some of them, Britain is among the less good countries. But on others it is among the better countries or in the middle. I certainly agree that Britain’s record in education should be much better. My book, The Welfare of Nations, has ideas for how this might be achieved based on what is done elsewhere in the world. (Incidentally, I am not responsible for the link in the online version which you say – and I don’t doubt you – is incorrect).

    But the main point of my article was that social mobility in Britain is reasonably good, insofar as it can be measured, and it is about average for advanced countries. You have not challenged the supporting data for this.

    I would like to correct an error in your blog:

    I did not say “the government should focus more on removing people’s welfare”. For anyone who would like to check, the article is here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/11676667/Britons-are-on-the-move-upwards.html

    Will you withdraw the assertion?

    I do believe our welfare state has been dysfunctional over decades. So too, in different respects, have been the welfare states of many other advanced countries. I wrote The Welfare of Nations with the idea of finding ways to reduce the unintended consequences of some welfare states including social housing where people live in fear, permanent mass unemployment and functional illiteracy. We probably have different ideas about solutions to these problems. But you may agree that it would be good to deal with them.

    If you would like to debate these issues , I would be happy to do so.

    With kind regards, James Bartholomew


  2. Michael Carey

    In other words: ‘When I thought the graph said its opposite, it was right and counted as evidence/proof of my argument. When corrected, I have had the sudden realisation that it was completely superfluous to the argument’.

    Is data just an ornament then? Something to conjure up a ‘truth-effect’, to make a piece ‘seem like’ it isn’t ideological, for an argument concocted completely without reference to research?

  3. Kathryn

    You really should go to source. The results tend to show most countries that perform well have higher levels of equity in education.

    Excellence through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-volume-ii.htm)

    ” Of the 13 countries and economies that significantly improved their mathematics performance between 2003 and 2012, three also show improvements in equity in education during the same period, and another nine improved their performance while maintaining an already high level of equity – proving that countries do not have to sacrifice high performance to achieve equity in education opportunities.”

    “• Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Macao-China combine high levels of performance with equity in education opportunities as assessed in PISA 2012.

    • Of the 39 countries and economies that participated in both PISA 2003 and 2012, Mexico, Turkey and Germany improved both their mathematics performance and their levels of equity in education during the period.

    • Across OECD countries, a more socio-economically advantaged student scores 39 points higher in mathematics – the equivalent of nearly one year of schooling – than a less-advantaged student.

    • Some 6% of students across OECD countries – nearly one million students – are “resilient”, meaning that they beat the socio-economic odds against them and exceed expectations, when compared with students in other countries. In Hong Kong-China, Macao-China, Shanghai-China, Singapore and Viet Nam, 13% of students or more are resilient and perform among the top 25% of students across all participating countries and economies.

    • The share of immigrant students in OECD countries increased from 9% in 2003 to 12% in 2012 while the performance disadvantage of immigrant students as compared to students without an immigrant background but with similar socio-economic status shrank by 10 score points during the same period.

    • The concentration of immigrant students in a school is not, in itself, associated with poor performance.

    • Across OECD countries, students who reported that they had attended pre-primary school for more than one year score 53 points higher in mathematics – the equivalent of more than one year of schooling – than students who had not attended pre-primary education.

    • OECD countries allocate at least an equal, if not a larger, number of teachers per student to socio-economically disadvantaged schools as to advantaged schools; but disadvantaged schools tend to have great difficulty in attracting qualified teachers)”

  4. Kathryn

    Also there are results from 2012, rather than 2010, which were able to better examine or consider the impact of the economic situation on education across the countries.

  5. Masu

    “the chart shows that we nevertheless did better than quite a few countries with which we often compare ourselves including Germany, France, the Netherlands and the USA. The point I was making was that Britain is not, as some like to claim, exceptionally bad in its social mobility”

    ..or the countries you list are merely worse? Comparing bad with terrible is not an excuse or a justification, which is apparently your aim in this “hastily researched” article (if you feel so strongly I suggest reading the evidence before promoting it?)

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