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.