Magazine article The Spectator

Onwards and Upwards

Magazine article The Spectator

Onwards and Upwards

Article excerpt

Having your prospects in life determined at birth is the most pernicious and fundamental form of inequality. So the present political focus on improving social mobility is to be welcomed on principle. To think that all the advantages and disadvantages of background can be ironed out is delusional; short of a Spartan-style nationalisation of child-rearing, how could such a level playing field even be attempted?

But this country could - and should - go a lot further towards broadening equality of opportunity: a 2005 report funded by the Sutton Trust found that Britain came joint last with the United States in this respect in a survey of 11 developed economies.

It is shocking, and depressing proof of how foolish it was to abolish grammar schools, that the 7 per cent of the population educated privately account for three quarters of all judges, 70 per cent of finance directors and a third of MPs. But the problem is not with the 7 per cent; the problem lies in the education offered to the other 93 per cent.

Too often in Britain, the debate about mobility has concentrated on the number of state-educated pupils getting into Oxford and Cambridge, as if they were the only universities worth going to and as if university admission were the only useful test of mobility. But this misses the point. The real problem is the gap that has emerged long before the age of 18: independent schools produce more pupils with three As than the entire comprehensive sector. That, rather than cases like that of Laura Spence, is what needs to be addressed.

The most encouraging aspect of Alan Milburn's report on social mobility, commissioned by the Prime Minister and published this week, is its recommendations on education.

Its findings reflect a recognition that the core problem is the failure of the state sector, and the woeful inadequacy of the service it offers the least affluent. As one of the few Labour politicians with the courage to admit that social mobility has, in many respects, declined, Mr Milburn proposes to offer the parents of children at failing schools - half of the schools located in the most deprived 10 per cent of the country are failing - a voucher for their child's education worth 150 per cent of state funding: roughly equivalent to £10,000 per annum. …

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