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“The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities,” said Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, in April. “That is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of the coalition government’s policy.”

It is an appealing call to arms. The more “mobile” our society, the less our birth matters; the more our own efforts and abilities shape where we end up. Unfortunately, the government is unlikely to achieve its goal.

Social mobility is shamefully low in Britain, compared to Europe. This shows itself early—in different levels of school readiness, primary school achievement and higher education. It shows itself,…

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