Upwardly Immobile

The best way to give working-class children a better chance in life is to offer education vouchers

John Stein

In 2000, Gordon Brown opened a can of worms when he criticised the medical tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford (me) for not giving a place to read medicine to Laura Spence, an applicant from a Newcastle comprehensive school. Her name became synonymous with Oxbridge’s alleged prejudice against working-class entrants. 

The debate lingers on and I still feel that my 40 years’ efforts to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students at Oxford were unfairly trashed. So I was very interested to read the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn’s all-party report, Unleashing Aspiration: Fair Access to the Professions. It is spot on. Entry to the professions is still dominated by the upper-middle classes, who go to the best state or private schools. 

This is not due to class conspiracy, however, but to old-fashioned money. Since upper-middle-class families’ incomes are a third higher than average, they can afford to send their children to private schools. Three quarters of judges and finance directors, 45 per cent of top civil servants and even one third of MPs went to private schools.

The main reason why there are so few working-class judges is that entry to the professions is highly competitive. Private schools can reliably deliver the required grades at A level, whereas many state schools can’t. For example, you are eight times more likely to get three As if you go to a private school. Even for the very highly intelligent in the top two per cent of the population, if your family is unskilled, you’re still 50 times less likely to get three As at A level than if your family were professional. This is not only unfair but grossly wasteful of talent. 

Clearly, therefore, the main way to help working-class children into the professions would be to improve state education. Indeed, the government has increased educational expenditure by £28 billion over the last decade, so that now we spend £60 billion per annum. They also had the “aspiration” to raise the amount of money spent per child from the current £5,000 per year to the average amount spent by the private schools of £8,000 per year, but this would cost another £10 billion. The current recession has probably put paid to that. 

To be fair, the extra cash has raised standards slightly. Nevertheless, one-third of 11-year-olds still fail to reach a satisfactory standard in reading and writing. About 10 per cent of both primary and secondary school classes have more than 30 pupils per teacher. And 35 per cent of pupils still fail to gain five good GCSE passes, and so they leave school essentially without any useful qualifications. Since most of those schools serve working-class areas it is not surprising that so few of their children get into university, let alone into a profession. 

But money is not everything. Many schools in disadvantaged areas do a good job on horribly limited resources and some do spectacularly. There are 50 state schools among England’s top 200. The Robert Clack Comprehensive in Dagenham, Essex, is in the third most deprived borough in the UK, yet in 2007 more than 80 per cent of its pupils achieved five good GCSEs and one third went on to university. Only a few years ago it was deemed to be “failing”, but now two thirds of applicants have to be turned away because 1,000 families apply for its 300 places each year. The headteacher Paul Grant certainly deserved his knighthood. 

Yet there’s no doubt that many state schools don’t do well enough. Some blame the switch from selective grammar to comprehensive schools, seeing this change as motivated by class envy and ideological socialism. Interestingly, however, as Education Secretary in the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the greatest number of conversions of grammar schools into comprehensives. Like Labour voters, her Conservative supporters saw the unfairness of settling a child’s whole future on the basis a single hour’s IQ test at the age of 11. The basic aims of comprehensives were fairness and flexibility, to give every child an equal chance whatever their social background and whenever they matured. The current Conservative leadership has no intention of reversing it.

In general, however, comprehensives have not lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, early enthusiasts not only wanted to abolish the 11-plus exam, they also banned “streaming” for different abilities in subjects such as maths or French. Instead, mixed-ability classes were considered “best practice”, the pious hope being that the more able youngsters would help their less able friends upwards. All too often, however, the two groups were not friends at all, with the less able disrupting the class so much that the talented were hardly taught anything. At the other end of the scale, not enough money was provided for more vocational training for the 50 per cent of children who were below average intelligence. These problems, coupled with poor salaries and poor resources in general, led to a haemorrhage of good teachers into the private system or other careers. 

Nevertheless, improved teachers’ pay and a new generation of heads, such as Sir Paul Grant, are gradually improving comprehensive education. In fact, working-class entry to university has doubled over the past 40 years. Unfortunately, however, this does not represent a doubling of their achievement, but simply the conversion of the old polytechnics into universities. In 1950, approximately 80,000 university undergraduates came from grammar or direct grant schools and 40,000 were defined as working class. By 2007, 250,000 of the tripled university intake came from state schools, and 80,000 of these are regarded as working class. But still only 40,000 got to the older Russell Group universities, which supply the majority of the professions, and only 10,000 (10 per cent of all working-class school leavers) came from comprehensives.

However, these low numbers are not the result of a deliberate middle-class conspiracy to deprive able working-class children of their rightful place in society. Nor is working-class “poverty of aspiration” the main cause. Most parents do try to find the best schools for their children. Unfortunately, a large proportion of families living in poor school areas can’t get their children into the neighbouring better ones. Probably the introduction of educational vouchers, as recommended in the Milburn report, would improve parental choice and drive up standards. We will only increase the number of working-class entrants to the professions when all comprehensives are at least as good as the Robert Clack School.

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