The results of researching social mobility in Europe were presented and associated problems and possible solutions were discussed during a high-level event organised by the European Parliamentary Research Service. It was acknowledged that social status and education in Europe are still inherited.
The term “social mobility” was created to express children’s social ascent and descent compared to their parents. The aspects of promoting ascent or descent are manifold and make political measures difficult. Hence, the event initially focussed on outlining the problems by three renowned researchers, who presented their work on the issue. Afterwards, representatives of the European Parliament, of Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions and the European Commission debated which possible political solutions might be possible.
Social status defines children’s future
Professor Fabrizio Bernardi from Italy asked the question how and whether the institution ‘school’ would be able to compensate social inequality. His finding: the school alone is not enough. The differences between children with regard to their social background already shows when they start school. Even though differences shrink during the school year, they reappear during the long summer holidays. The reason for this lies with extracurricular activities, children from high-income households can engage in. This means that in Austria too, children inherit education and opportunities, which eventually results in a wealth distribution gap. In its 2019 Report, the Social Protection Committee agrees with this conclusion: Austria must urgently work on the issue of equal opportunities for children from a disadvantaged environment.
Helen Russell, Trinity College Dublin, explained how pre-school education influences education and promotion prospects. Social class, the number of books at home and in particular parents’ stress level make a great impact on a child’s development. Julia Fionda, European Commission, agreed: “Due to the existing social inequality, a child’s opportunities are already defined during pregnancy.” In her view, schools can make a large contribution to counteract this - however, schools alone are not enough. Promoting and supporting parents of babies and toddlers as well as digitalisation would also do their part.
Anna Ludwinek, Eurofound, agreed that unequal opportunities do already exist before formal education begins. In her view, the plan of the European Parliament, to introduce a Child guarantee would be a first step to promote social mobility. Bernardi suggested to upgrade the professions of nursing school and primary school teacher, to promote extracurricular activities and to spread holidays more evenly over the year. This would contribute to compensating inequalities. Fionda also made it clear that the education system was in need of fundamental rethinking in order to make opportunities for a social ascent through education possible.
Further education is not sufficiently recognised
Another issue addressed by experts was the recognition of skills of low-qualified employees. The study by the sociologist Heike Solga showed that many have far more skills than documented in their qualification certificates. This omission makes finding a job more difficult and makes any gained vocational education and training, in particular continuing training, appear less relevant than it actually is. The AK also demands better funding and implementation of continuing vocational education and training and lifelong learning for adults. Labour market policy had to focus again on continuing training. In the view of the experts of the AK and the event, this would enable the promotion of social mobility.
Concluding the debate, the Social Democrat MEP Estrella Durá Ferrandis said that at European level the cooperation between different policy fields would be the biggest problem. The issue of social justice and mobility concerns the education sector, family policy, women's policy and gender equality as well as the labour market and fundamental economic issues. Only if we improve opportunities for children, we will be able to remove existing inequalities and to create a fair society.