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The use (and misuse) of statistics in understanding social mobility: regression to the mean and the cognitive development of high ability children from disadvantaged homes

Listed author(s):
  • John Jerrim


    (Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London. 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK.)

  • Anna Vignoles


    (Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London. 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK.)

Social mobility has emerged as one of the key academic and political topics in Britain over the last decade. Although economists and sociologists disagree on whether mobility has increased or decreased, and if this is a bigger issue in the UK than other developed countries, both groups recognise that education and skill plays a key role in explaining intergenerational persistence. This has led academics from various disciplines to investigate how rates of cognitive development may vary between children from rich and poor backgrounds. A number of key studies have definitively shown that a gap in cognitive skill between richer and poorer children is evident from a very early age. Some have also suggested that highly able children from disadvantaged homes are overtaken by their rich (but less able) peers before the age of 10 in terms of their cognitive skill. It is this last conclusion that we focus on in this paper, as it has become a widely cited “fact†within the academic literature on social mobility and child development, and has had a major influence on public policy and political debate. We investigate whether this latter finding is due to a spurious statistical artefact known as regression to the mean (RTM). Our analysis suggests that there are serious methodological problems plaguing the existing literature and that, after applying some simple adjustments for RTM, we obtain dramatically different results.

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Paper provided by Department of Quantitative Social Science - UCL Institute of Education, University College London in its series DoQSS Working Papers with number 11-01.

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Date of creation: 07 Mar 2011
Date of revision: 20 Apr 2011
Handle: RePEc:qss:dqsswp:1101
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