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The re-creation of the Victorian class divide in education

The Guardian reported on 1st February that 85% of white boys from poor backgrounds leave school without attaining five good GCSE’s, that “White boys in disadvantaged areas are the lowest performing group of pupils in schools after the small population of Traveller children”, whereas “nearly half of their wealthier classmates in England hit the government’s target of five GCSE’s at grades A* to C, including English and Maths” (link).

This follows some recent remarks made by Dr Anthony Seldon, master of the £9,000 a term Wellington College in Berkshire and a prominent biographer of Tony Blair, that the private education sector has “emerged pre-eminent in the British education system” and was “perpetuating the apartheid which has so dogged education and national life in Britain since the Second World War”. For Seldon, the independent education sector -which accounts for 7% of British children- “cream[s] off the best pupils, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best results and the best university places. If you throw in the 166 remaining grammar schools, which are predominantly middle class and private schools in all but name, the stranglehold is almost total” (link).

These statements linking educational achievement with social class have been expanded on by Professor Stephen Ball of London University’s Institute of Education in his recent book ‘The Education Debate’. Ball argues that Britain’s current education structure is increasingly coming to resemble that of the Victorian era. Then, the working class went to elementary schools, the middle class to grammar schools and the upper class to public schools, with the Church and philanthropists wielding significant influence over the system. The same situation is re-asserting itself now: community schools for the working class, faith schools for the middle-class and private and public schools for the top echelons of British society. Ball states that “The class gap in participation rates in higher education is larger than ever before… We are seeing the recreation of almost all the elements of the Victorian class-divided education system”.

In spite of much action by New Labour in the sphere of education, the class inequalities have not been erased because, in Ball’s view, “governments have only listened to the middle classes… throughout history, the middle class has been seen as a problem whose [educational] needs need to be responded to, while the working class has been seen simply as a social problem. Our education system has always provided the means for middle-class families to gain social advantage and to separate themselves off from ‘others’… Grammar schools, parental choice, ability grouping, faith schools, gifted and talented have all been a response to middle-class concerns”. Sally Tomlinson of Oxford University concurred with Ball’s findings, stating that ‘high-quality education’ “has always been monopolised by higher socio-economic groups with some concessions to lower-class ‘gifted’ individuals” (link).

This simply re-confirms the words of Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust that “The middle classes start with a huge advantage – an educational system that is socially selective. The richer you are, the better the school to which you send your children, whether private or state, specialist or non-specialist” (link). The government’s own research, and ministers, acknowledge the use of ‘covert selection’ by the leading state sector schools to produce “socially segregated intakes” (link and link). In a recent profile of education in Bristol, which “has the highest concentration of independent school places outside of a small exclusive corner of north London that includes Hampstead and Highgate, and some of the poorest performing state schools”, one middle-class parent, when asked why she didn’t want her 11 year old son to go to a state school that served the St Paul’s area of Bristol -which saw riots in 1980- answered: “Snobbery. It’s awful snobbery, but I care who my son mixes with. I don’t think he could cope in a rougher school with bullies. He’s sensitive” (link).

The increase in educational inequality along class lines hasn’t happened in isolation: it is a reflection of what has happened in this country over the last thirty years. OFSTED’s 2000 report on educational inequality stated that “There is a strong direct association between social class background and success in education: put simply, the higher a child’s social class, the greater are their attainments on average… This is one of the longest-established trends in British education but the association is not static. Indeed, there is evidence that the inequality of attainment between social classes has grown since the late 1980s” (link, p18); and the Oxford economist AB Atkinson wrote in 2003 that “the major equalisation of the first three-quarters of the century in the UK has been reversed, taking the shares of the top income groups back to levels of inequality found fifty years ago” (link). Educational achievement is largely a reflection of material and social advantage, and as the country has become more unequal, so have educational outcomes. This didn’t happen by accident: the raison d’etre of the neo-liberal project was to concentrate and redistribute wealth and power towards the top. The practical result of these changes have been that social mobility has declined in the UK to levels similar to those in the US, and substantially lower than in Canada and Scandinavia: the supposedly flexible, meritocratic neo-liberal countries are, as it turns out, a good deal less meritocratic than the supposedly ossified, relatively egalitarian and social democratic countries (link) .

The historic role of public education has largely been to prepare working class children for a life of wage slavery, drudgery and subordination. Recent political trends now mean that the chances of working class children escaping that fate are diminishing, whereas the offspring of the wealthy -no matter how dull- are as secure in their futures as they have ever been.

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