I do think we need some perspective when we discuss education and how it has impacted on social mobility. In 2007 well over half of all 15-16 year olds in maintained schools achieved five or more ‘higher passes’ at the end of compulsory schooling. This is the hurdle set in the past for only those attending grammar schools, one which many, even of that selected minority, failed to surmount. For example:
In 1970, 47% of pupils left secondary school with no qualifications at all; in 2006 that figure was down to 4%.
Between 1969 and 2006 the percentage of 16-18 year olds in full time education rose from 25.6 to 80.3.
In 1972 just 14% of under-21 year olds entered higher education, in 2005 42% entered.
Over a third of the age group entering higher education is an aim which would have seemed impossibly ambitious a generation ago. Given that expenditure on education did not increase in real terms between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s this remarkable increase in productivity and progress (as measured by qualifications) is attributable, in large part, to the impact of the comprehensive system of schooling.
For me a real barrier to increased social mobility is the fact the continued popularity of private schools. In fairness it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves, often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it.
There are though, clear consequences for social mobility that many “left leaning” (and possibly Liberal Conspiracy contributors) parents often choose to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can - and do - raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils, have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities.
What’s more they now recruit from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. Parents who are willing to take the bold decision to become part of the problem, rather than seeking to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and “comrades” attempting to ease their conscience by announcing that the local comprehensive school is simply not good enough and justify their decision to go private in the name of parental responsibility.
It is also the case that because so many of these parents work in the media (a few are in government) there is little political mileage in calling for the reform of private schools and more equal access to universities.
I think one of the main problems is that those who do have influence, those who really do have a “voice” in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order protect it.
The sad truth is that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.