Thoughts and reports on inequality, from disability to gender

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John Major is right - in education, money still buys a better chance of success

Britain has a clear and shameful lack of social mobility, and private, fee-paying schools are symbolic of the wider link between how much money your parents have and how much opportunity you’re given.

Eton College, where students leave with a significant advantage. Photo: Getty Images

I’ve said it many times. If you want someone to attack inequality in opportunity, go to a Conservative Prime Minister. John Major, that well known class warrior, has come out with some strong words on the way the wealthy in this country keep a hold on positions of power.  

"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class," he said this weekend. "To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking."

"Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born”, he went on. “We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them.”

I think, at this point, little of what John Major said comes as news. Britain has a clear and shameful lack of social mobility. Private schools are far from the only factor in that problem, but they stick out, symbolic of the wider link in this country between how much money your parents have and how much opportunity you’re given.

Yet even this most obvious of mechanisms goes ignored; itself, it seems, symbolic of the blind eye we turn to the avenues of power that keep things as they are. When it comes to the hold of private schools on every position of advantage in this country, most of us seem locked in to some sort of selective amnesia. We know what happens. Many of us are sure it’s far from fair. Few are willing to actually come out against it. The fact that private schools are still given the tax relief saved for charities is suggestive of our collective willingness to be the butt of the public school system’s joke.

We’d be disgusted if it emerged a parent had bribed the admissions tutor at Oxford University to allow their child to attend. We are somehow meant to accept it when they buy their child an education that vastly increases their odds of being offered a place. Private school students are 55 times more likely to be given an offer for Oxbridge. Five schools send more there than 2,000 others combined. Either the working class are stupid or the people who have more money are using it to ensure their children have more chance of success.

And why wouldn’t they? Parents want the best for their child and it’s their right to do what they can to help them achieve it. Freedom is often presented in this way as limitless, as if societies give it free reign regardless of how one person’s freedom harms others. There are limits to what a parent can legitimately do to help their child succeed. If there weren’t, there would be no laws against a father stealing a laptop to make his son’s homework easier or ethical problem with a mother taking her daughter’s A-levels for her. The decision is where we want to draw the line between parental partiality and our hopes for equal opportunity. Somewhere along the way, we’ve decided private schools fall within the realms of acceptability. Power buys power. The status quo is strangely attractive, even when it’s harming most of us.

Education, at its most practical, equips children with the chance to get the best from their life. Our education system just gives some better chances than others.  If we decide that we want an economy where there are unequal rewards, the least we can do is ensure each child has a fair chance in the competition for those rewards. Maintaining the private versus state school divide is like giving one child a stick and another a sword and acting surprised when the stick snaps in two.  

Even the weapons we’ve told ourselves make the fight a bit fairer are now being bought up by the people who don’t even need the help. The Sutton Trust released a report last week that showed the wealthy and privately educated in fact have a hold on grammar schools; the supposed mechanism for the smart working class to make it to the top. More than four times as many grammar school pupils come from outside the state sector than the number entitled to free school meals. The vast majority, funnily enough, come from fee-paying prep schools.

The problem is clear. The question is whether we want to do anything about it.