Close the university class gap

Perhaps it is a measure of how well new Labour is running the country that the Times led its front page last Monday, not with ministerial corruption or incompetence, but with the "news" that children from poor homes have next to no chance of getting to any of our 13 leading universities. To anybody who works in education, this is roughly on a par with being told that the Pope is a Roman Catholic or that Margaret Thatcher is a member of the Conservative Party. But the Times had been lobbied by Peter Lampl, one of those rich philanthropists who have a genius for buttonholing influential people and conveying outrage about what everybody else takes for granted. William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury once worked in a similar fashion; and what Mr Lampl goes on about is scarcely less of a scandal in the 21st century than slavery or infant labour was in the 19th.

The figures are simple. A child who goes to a private school is 25-times more likely to get into an elite university (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, Bristol, Edinburgh, etc) than a child from the lower social classes or from a poor neighbourhood. The universities insist that this is a supply-side problem: the comprehensives don't teach their pupils properly. Mr Lampl, using official figures, explodes this myth. "The university admissions system", he writes, "is biased in favour of private education and against the state schools." If students were admitted strictly on A-level grades, the top universities would take in about 30 per cent more poor students than they do and about 30 per cent fewer from the private schools. Those who thought we were making slow progress towards a meritocracy are sadly mistaken. True, a working-class child's chances of getting to a university of any description have improved enormously over the past 40 years. But the chances of a middle-class child have improved even more. The class gap, therefore, has actually widened, particularly in the elite universities, which offer the best social and career prospects. Almost nobody is trying to do anything about this, least of all admissions tutors. Why bother with an inarticulate youth from Liverpool 8, when private school teachers and middle-class parents are using every avenue of influence to persuade you to admit a student who will probably be less bother to teach?

Two questions arise. First, does it matter? The emphatic answer is that it matters more than almost anything else to which new Labour may address itself. According to research at London's Institute of Education, a degree boosts men's lifetime earnings by 12 per cent, women's by 34 per cent. Graduates have something like a 25-times better chance of a professional or managerial job than someone who leaves school at 16. Degree-holders are also healthier and more enlightened - for example, 43 per cent of graduates agree that it is all right for different races to get married, against 22 per cent of those who hold only A-level qualifications. A government that got its education policies right would also get many of its economic, health and social policies right at the same time.

Second, what is to be done? Mr Lampl suggests that independent schools should be "opened up" to "bright" children, regardless of their parents' ability to pay. His Sutton Trust finances some children along these lines, and he wants the government to finance much larger numbers. But this solution revives a version of the 11-plus, for which middle-class parents would mercilessly coach their children, and of the grammar/secondary modern divide, which would leave those who fail (mostly working-class) worse off than ever. A better idea, also favoured by Mr Lampl, is to introduce a simple aptitude test for university entry, like that used in America. But that would not close the class gap, any more than it closes the race gap in America: social and cultural advantages, as well as coaching, would still help children from the more affluent homes.

The bold solution is to award a fixed number (or quota) of elite university places to every school in the country (proportionate to the school's size). This would remove any incentive for parents to pay for private education; on the contrary, the middle classes would clamour to get into inner-city state schools in the belief that their offspring stood a better chance of making the university entry quota against competition from the despised underclass. The British class system would be destroyed at a stroke. Do not expect new Labour to adopt this idea any time soon. It is madness, unthinkable, impracticable. So, once, was the privatisation of water.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy