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A system riddled with class

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Issue 1699

‘Snobby’ Oxford row points to

A system riddled with class

ALEX Callinicos exposes the issues of class in education thrown up by the row over Oxford University’s refusal to give a place to a state school pupil.

THE TORIES have accused New Labour of waging “class war” in the row over admissions to Oxford University. If only. Of course, Gordon Brown was quite right to denounce the elitist interview system that denied Tyneside school student Laura Spence a place to read medicine at Magdalen College.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, conceded in the Guardian last week that interviews favour “middle class bullshitters”. It is also very welcome that ministers have started to highlight the class privilege that permeates British universities. Education secretary David Blunkett pointed out in a recent speech that only 17 percent of young people from lower socio-economic groups went into higher education against 45 percent of those from non-manual groups.

Research carried out for the government shows that:

  • In 1998-9 four out of ten of all places at the top 13 universities were filled by students from private schools.
  • Someone from a private school is almost 30 times more likely to get into one of these universities than someone from a disadvantaged background.

These are shocking figures. But it’s important to understand the nature of the problem. Laura Spence’s ambitious head teacher, Paul Kelley, echoed New Labour rhetoric in the Independent on Sunday: “In order to safeguard the UK economy we must ensure that the money invested in education pays back not only in terms of outcomes for the outstandingly intelligent, but also in the contribution of those outstandingly intelligent to the future wellbeing of the nation.”

This is as elitist an outlook as that of the most port-ridden old Oxford don. It assumes that the problem lies in a relatively small number of “outstandingly intelligent” young people being kept out of top universities by what Blunkett calls “snobby admissions tutors”.

But the trouble lies much deeper. Students from what are laughably called the public schools have a huge competitive advantage over those from state schools when it comes to getting into university.

Fundamentally this is because far more resources are devoted to each child at a public school. Class sizes are smaller, much time is devoted to each pupil, and the brighter are carefully coached in an effort to get them into Oxbridge or other top universities.

Old Labour used to hate the public schools. “The idea that differences in educational opportunity among children should depend on differences in wealth is a barbarity,” wrote the christian socialist historian R H Tawney.

But New Labour hasn’t laid a finger on the public schools. The Tory subsidy through the assisted places scheme may have gone, but public schools continue to reap huge financial benefits from their charitable status. Despite the government’s proclaimed commitment to “opportunity for all”, the rich can still buy their children the best education available. But the “barbarity” that Tawney denounced isn’t confined to the continued existence of private education. Children of middle class households also flourish in the state sector. Laura Spence is an example.

They enjoy the benefits that flow from being brought up in homes with books, computers, and university-educated parents. The efforts that middle class couples make to live in areas with “good” comprehensives are legendry.

The results are reflected in government figures. According to a white paper issued by Gordon Brown’s Treasury, “If one father’s earnings are twice the level of another, his son’s maths test score is on average five percentile points higher than the other’s, and 2.7 percentile points higher up the reading test distribution.” The figures are even worse for girls.

In other words, a child’s exam performance is directly related to his or her parent’s income. Now that really is a barbarity. This suggests that the efforts-on which New Labour is putting greater and greater emphasis-to measure a person’s abilities by his or her exam performance are quite meaningless.

Getting lots of good GCSE and A-Level results is less a sign of “outstanding intelligence” than of the good luck of being born with parents who have the resources and motivation to encourage their children to do well at school. Gordon Brown was at the Trades Union Congress last week. He told his audience, “It is about time we had an end to that old Britain when what matters to some people is the privileges you were born with rather than the potential you actually have.”

If that sentiment was sincere, then as a first step Brown would end the scandal of the public schools. But, more fundamentally, he would attack the vast inequalities between rich and poor reflected in the education system.

Rich kids get a head start

THE privileged school pupils get all the attention and resources they need. Since 1979 private schools have been steadily reducing class sizes.

  • New figures show that the average pupil to teacher ratio in private schools is 10.6 to one. This is much lower than the 18.6 ratio in state schools.
  • Roedean College private school charges 10,260 a year for a “day girl”. This figure is around FIVE times as much as is “invested” in a state school pupil.
  • Eton College spends 20,000 a year on each of its pupils.
  • Private schools have charity status. That means they escape all tax on income from stocks, shares, trusts and property.

They are also let off all VAT, corporation tax on their profits, capital gains tax and stamp duty on their property transactions, inheritance tax on their new endowments and up to 100 percent off their business rates. All the public schools put together have an annual income from fees alone of 3.2 billion. Compare that to the 2.6 billion cash “increase” David Blunkett set aside for the years 1999-2001 for the 93 percent of pupils educated in the state sector.

Poverty trap that new labour ignores

GORDON Brown’s Treasury department says that poverty and education are linked. The 1999 report said, “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education. On ‘difficult to let’ estates one in four children gain no GCSEs [the national average is one in 20] and rates of truancy are four times the average. There is considerable evidence that growing up in a family which has experienced financial difficulties damages children’s education performances. The data from the national child development survey shows that there is a strong relationship between children’s performance in maths and reading tests between the ages of six and eight and their parents’ earnings.”

Yet, despite this, inequality in Britain continues to grow under New Labour. Research by the Office of National Statistics shows that under this government the poorest 10 percent have seen their income continue to fall. Three million children in Britain live below the official poverty line.

The conveyor belt

THERE ARE around 550,000 children in private schools. They count for a mere 7 percent of the pupil population and yet provide more than 20 percent of those who make it to university-and nearly 50 percent of those who go to Oxford and Cambridge.

The 7 percent who go to private school account for:

  • Seven out of nine senior generals.
  • 33 out of 39 of the most senior judges.
  • More than 120 of the 180 officers graduating from the Sandhurst army officers’academy.
  • Half of the 18 permanent secretaries running Whitehall.

Research for the Economic and Social Research Council found that 75 percent of private school pupils went on to take professional or managerial jobs. From state schools the figure was just 40 percent.

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