Blighting the chances of bright working class children

I turned on the Today Programme yesterday morning and my heart sank: the main story was about how “too many” children from wealthy families were going into the professions and that the relatively poor were being disadvantaged. A committee of the great and the good – many of whom were privately educated – chaired by Alan Milburn has found that children from lower income households are less likely to get into law, accountancy and medicine than a generation ago. The remedy, we are told, is more government intervention to even out the life chances of the poor and the wealthy.

What is so sad about this is that the sort of background identified by this committee – low income households with no experience of higher education – exactly mirrors that of my wife and me. Yet we both went to an excellent school and on to university. The reason for this was, despite living in council housing, we both were able to take and pass the 11 plus and go to a grammar school. Like thousands of working class children we were offered a massive opportunity to better ourselves.

This is denied to today’s children, whose education has been determined by the bureaucratic administration of school places and the ability of their parents to afford a house in the catchment area of a good school. Not surprisingly, therefore, those children with wealthier parents have a head start.

Social mobility was better in the 1960s and 1970s not because of any drive for equality, but precisely because of the opposite. The system actively discriminated between individuals, based on their personal qualities and did so with complete disregard for the background and income of parents. But this simple insight seemingly has been missed by the great and the good who instead wish to penalise schools and universities for pursuing excellence, and in doing so, blight the chances of another generation of bright working class children.

I would not like to see a return to a state-planned grammar school system. We should, instead, put pupils on a level playing field only in terms of the minimum financial resources that we give each parent to spend on education (to which parents could add more if they wished). And parents could spend those resources as they wished on any form of education in a competitive system which would no doubt combine elements of the market and voluntary (or partly voluntary institutions). Furthermore, contrary to the proposals of the Conservative party, such ‘free’ schools must be able to specialise and that includes being entirely free to set their own admissions policies.

I agree with Peter that if one’s aim is to create a meritocratic society of the kind described in the report then a selective system along the lines of the 11+ should be reintroduced, although ironically one of the arguments against the 11+ was that it benefited middle class children whose parents were better able to prepare them for the test.However, I also agree with Philip that such state planning of education is contrary to basic principles of freedom. The problem, then, lies with the identification and pursuit of ’social’ ends such as meritocracy. Children’s outcomes, like the outcomes of adults, should not be centrally planned and are not a legitimate concern of government.

Philip, I don’t disagree with you. My point was that we need some means of selecting the brightest and best that does not rely entirely on parental income and background. Competition can certainly do this, so long as we accept that schools should not be forced to respond to demand by expanding. The biggest issue, however, is to accept that education should be elitist.

A lot of this debate illustrates a familiar problem in government interference by emphasising the inputs to a process rather than the outcomes. Essentially it seems that many national politicians think voters prefer apparently ‘fair’ processes with unsatisfactory outcomes rather than other kinds of processes with better outcomes. Partly this raises the question: what does ‘fairness’ mean? and can national governments guarantee it? And partly it involves trade-offs between short-term and longer-term. The fiasco of government imposition of inadequate methods of teaching children how to read suggests that government control can be a very high-risk approach.

Taking David’s point – what does fairness mean? In these sorts of discussion people rarely consider what greater social mobility would mean in a society where high status jobs were limited in number – positional goods if you like. If there were to be churn in social status it must imply that the children of successful people would drop in status. How many people really want this? Most of us hope our children will do at least as well as us, and devote time and resources to helping them on in life. Even if independent schools were banned, successful people would still help their children in other ways. How can you ever stop this? If you could, it would be an awful world – Kampuchea Year Zero.

three cheers for the 11 plus and grammer schools sorting the wheat from the chaff many of the wheat coming from working class backgrounds my parents being a carpenter (self-employed) and a nurse myself and my brother both graduating from school to the raf i have since become an area manager for a packaging company my brother works in ethiopia on £200,000 per annum tax free my 3 sisters all run their own buisneses we got no special coaching from our parents when my dad came in from work we all sat around a table together for a meal both parents discussing our schoolday after tea we all completed our chores mine being cleaning everyones shoes then we did homework mom went to work

The working class originally educated their children privately. For all manner of moral reasons, the state decided to provide education, it knew better than working class parents and its education should be compulsory. The truth is: 1. Moralists wanted utopia with no objective evidence it was the best way
2. Middle-class wanted cushy life employment for their children – as state teachers
4. Industry wanted ‘more educated’ employees
5. Moralist bullied parents – parents were glad to be free of the responsibility.No one provided objective evidence. That conspiracy has existed ever since. Children paid the price – Boring school, irrelevant subjects slow dumb down. Conspiracy fails.

I would not like to see a return to a state-planned grammar school system. We should, instead, put pupils on a level playing field only in terms of the minimum financial resources that we give each parent to spend on education (to which parents could add more if they wished). And parents could spend those resources as they wished on any form of education in a competitive system which would no doubt combine elements of the market and voluntary (or partly voluntary institutions). Furthermore, contrary to the proposals of the Conservative party, such ‘free’ schools must be able to specialise and that includes being entirely free to set their own admissions policies.

I agree with Peter that if one’s aim is to create a meritocratic society of the kind described in the report then a selective system along the lines of the 11+ should be reintroduced, although ironically one of the arguments against the 11+ was that it benefited middle class children whose parents were better able to prepare them for the test.However, I also agree with Philip that such state planning of education is contrary to basic principles of freedom. The problem, then, lies with the identification and pursuit of ’social’ ends such as meritocracy. Children’s outcomes, like the outcomes of adults, should not be centrally planned and are not a legitimate concern of government.

Philip, I don’t disagree with you. My point was that we need some means of selecting the brightest and best that does not rely entirely on parental income and background. Competition can certainly do this, so long as we accept that schools should not be forced to respond to demand by expanding. The biggest issue, however, is to accept that education should be elitist.

A lot of this debate illustrates a familiar problem in government interference by emphasising the inputs to a process rather than the outcomes. Essentially it seems that many national politicians think voters prefer apparently ‘fair’ processes with unsatisfactory outcomes rather than other kinds of processes with better outcomes. Partly this raises the question: what does ‘fairness’ mean? and can national governments guarantee it? And partly it involves trade-offs between short-term and longer-term. The fiasco of government imposition of inadequate methods of teaching children how to read suggests that government control can be a very high-risk approach.

Taking David’s point – what does fairness mean? In these sorts of discussion people rarely consider what greater social mobility would mean in a society where high status jobs were limited in number – positional goods if you like. If there were to be churn in social status it must imply that the children of successful people would drop in status. How many people really want this? Most of us hope our children will do at least as well as us, and devote time and resources to helping them on in life. Even if independent schools were banned, successful people would still help their children in other ways. How can you ever stop this? If you could, it would be an awful world – Kampuchea Year Zero.

three cheers for the 11 plus and grammer schools sorting the wheat from the chaff many of the wheat coming from working class backgrounds my parents being a carpenter (self-employed) and a nurse myself and my brother both graduating from school to the raf i have since become an area manager for a packaging company my brother works in ethiopia on £200,000 per annum tax free my 3 sisters all run their own buisneses we got no special coaching from our parents when my dad came in from work we all sat around a table together for a meal both parents discussing our schoolday after tea we all completed our chores mine being cleaning everyones shoes then we did homework mom went to work

The working class originally educated their children privately. For all manner of moral reasons, the state decided to provide education, it knew better than working class parents and its education should be compulsory. The truth is: 1. Moralists wanted utopia with no objective evidence it was the best way
2. Middle-class wanted cushy life employment for their children – as state teachers
4. Industry wanted ‘more educated’ employees
5. Moralist bullied parents – parents were glad to be free of the responsibility.No one provided objective evidence. That conspiracy has existed ever since. Children paid the price – Boring school, irrelevant subjects slow dumb down. Conspiracy fails.

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