When discrimination works

Parents of children who are now at private school are already talking of moving them to the local st

There was a curious story on page three of the Sunday Times at the weekend. With the headline "Universities told to favour poor schools", it concerned one of the most intriguing institutions created by Gordon Brown's government when it was still in its full honeymoon flush.

The National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE), chaired jointly by the Prime Minister and his two secretaries of state, Ed Balls (Schools) and John Denham (Universities), was intended as a marker of Brown's intentions. The council, made up of people from the business world, headteachers, college principals and university vice-chancellors, has now made its recommendations to ministers. The news is that the NCEE has thought the genuinely unthinkable. In order to increase the numbers of students from poorer families attending the country's top universities, admissions tutors will be encouraged to take into account prospective students' school and social background.

As a former education correspondent, I know that the story has always to be that standards are falling, so it was no surprise that a genuine scoop was turned into a classic tale of "dumbing down". According to the news report, the NCEE was to recommend giving preferential treatment to students from bad schools. Independent schools, which depend for their very financial existence on their ability to deliver a certain number of Oxbridge places a year, were said to be up in arms about the new arrangements. Certain top universities are already running schemes to help boost the numbers of state school students. At that most significant focus group of all, the north London dinner party, parents with children at private schools are talking of moving them to state sixth forms to give them a better chance of getting into a good university. The thought that children from less privileged backgrounds might be given a fighting chance is sending shivers through the chattering classes.

Egalitarian

It is impossible to deny the injustice of the present set-up. It may come as no surprise that only a third of university students come from the lowest socio-economic group and that only one in ten in this group attends Oxford or Cambridge. But it is not justifiable. Gordon Brown knows that new Labour has made too little difference to social mobility in this country, which is one of the reasons why he felt it was so important to establish the NCEE. The fact that, after a decade in power of Labour, the educational chances of a British child still depend largely on the wealth of his or her parents is indefensible.

The NCEE is the sort of institution that supporters of a Gordon Brown premiership hoped he would set up: radical, high-minded and egalitarian in sprit. Its remit is necessarily far wider than university admissions alone. It is designed to advise ministers on how to push up standards in underperforming state schools so they reach the national average and ensure that mediocre schools aspire to the highest levels of achievement for their pupils (whatever their capabilities or talents).

I had a previously arranged meeting with Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, the day after news of the NCEE recommendations broke. As a member of the council, she refused to confirm or deny the newspaper reports, but was furious that the dumbing-down argument had again been wheeled out. She is right to be angry. How can it possibly be a bad idea to widen the pool of talent from which our top universities select their students? Everyone but the less talented children of the privileged benefits from the new arrangements.

Devastating statistics

I needed little persuading of the need for reform, but Richard, a former professor of anthropology at Yale, sat me down and presented to me a set of devastating statistics. Each year, for instance, 3,000 students whose qualifications mean they could be at one of the 13 most academic institutions in the country (the so-called Russell Group) simply do not apply. At the other end of the spectrum, of the 600,000 students who reach 16 each year, more than 300,000 fail to get five GCSEs at grades A-C. This is a national scandal in itself, as most of these children come from the lowest social groups.

If that weren't enough of an indication that we have collectively failed to provide a decent education for the poorest in society, then her final statistic was even more shocking. Of the children from the lowest social group who had performed badly at 16, a staggering 60,000 were at some point shown to have been in the top 20 per cent of the school population in academic performance.

So, as Professor Richard recognises, the problems stretch much further than the children with good A-levels from state schools not applying to the top universities. This is embedded deep in our culture. Take the case of Majid Ahmed, a remarkable 18-year-old from Bradford who won a place at Imperial College, London to read medicine after turning his back on a life of crime. When he admitted a conviction for burglary, Imperial told him he was no longer welcome on the course.

We are living in a post-egalitarian world, where we may talk the language of social mobility but do little to make a practical difference. The reality is that we are stuck. And the decision by Imperial College to withdraw that offer of a place to Majid Ahmed shows just how stuck we are.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.