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How to define socio-economic background

There have always been several different questions that employers can ask to determine the socio-economic background of their employees, including parental qualifications, parental occupation, type of school attended and eligibility for free school meals. 

However, for employers and employees alike, this has proved confusing. An audit in late 2020 of those organisations that submitted entries to the Social Mobility Employer Index highlighted that despite the parental occupation measure being the most accurate, only a third of employers were collecting it. 

Social mobility in the UK:

Social mobility: The route less travelled in diversity and inclusion

Working class and a woman: what the research tells us

How employers can get involved with social mobility

The Social Mobility Commission led a panel of experts to review how employers measure the socio-economic background of employees and produced a simplified process.

The SMC guidance is that employers wishing to measure the socio-economic background of their workforce ask: ‘What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were about aged 14?’ The response to this question provides employers with a distribution of different groups within their workforce. 

Social background and class are complex characteristics that evade easy definition. Nonetheless, whilst not free of its difficulties, economists and sociologists agree that parental occupation is the most accurate measure available to determine socio-economic background.

It is constructed using National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC), which measures the employment relations and conditions of occupations, reflecting socio-economic positions in modern societies.

In simplified terms, it looks at economic influences like parental salary, alongside societal influences like cultural capital, education, exposure to social and cultural networks, etc. – influences that in modern society can give one person a societal advantage over others. 

The parental occupational question is also the easiest question to understand; it gets the highest response rate in testing and, most importantly, is applicable to those from all ages and applies to anyone who grew up outside of the UK but now works here. 

Asking staff what type of school they attended is not an accurate measurement of socio-economic background.

Being one of the 7% to attend an independent/private school is a sign of extreme economic and cultural advantage, but that hides huge variation in the 93% that attend state school, and the measure is less applicable for staff from other countries with different school systems.

Conversely, free school meals (FSM) eligibility reflects extreme economic disadvantage. But prior to 1980 it was a universal entitlement, which makes it difficult to assess across generations in the workforce. 

There are also disclosure issues pertaining to stigma and not all who are eligible for FSM apply. It does not compare internationally either. 

In the past employers have asked employees about their highest parental qualification. However a recent report highlights that in fact, a majority of students in higher education (68%) are the first in their family to achieve a university degree – and this measure is not necessarily a reliable indicator of your socio-economic background. 

Collecting employee data on both socio-economic background and other diversity characteristics will help employers to monitor their actions and take corrective steps, if needed, to create a workplace that embraces the talents of all its employees, regardless of their background. 


Paula Kemp is head of employer engagement at the Social Mobility Commission