The education test that Labour must not fail again

The education test that Labour must not fail again
Ian Bell, The Herald
23.07.09


It’s true: there is something wrong with the education system. How else can 12 years in power pass before the finest minds in the Labour Party begin, ever-so-timidly, to take notice of truths that should be encoded in the DNA of any Labour government?


Privilege armours itself; equality of opportunity is a joke; money and connections are everything; millions are born to fail; class distinctions are fundamental: this is Britain. Why weren’t we told?


Perhaps because there was no need. Gordon Brown might have thought he was inviting Alan Milburn to embark on a voyage of sociological discovery when he commissioned a study on access to the professions.


Most of us could have supplied the former minister with a map.


Some could also have added essential information for the journey.


Things were bad enough before Tony Blair came to power, we might have said, but they are worse now. The gulfs between top, middle and bottom – inequality, however measured – have grown steadily since 1997. The rest follows.


Mr Milburn, staunch Blairite, might have noticed. Mr Brown, at the heart of things since New Labour was hatched, might have noticed. Instead, the slippery underbelly of meritocracy, British style, is exposed and we are supposed to step back in amazement, crying: ‘Something must be done!’ Hold that thought.


Fair Access to the Professions, as the report by Milburn and his expert team is entitled, at least has the virtue of clarity regarding mechanisms.


First, education is key. Those with the means and without the qualms buy advantage for their children. Rationally, they expect something for their money, namely the place at the ‘right’


university that will secure a berth commensurate with the outlay. Why else would anyone fork out the fees?


Secondly, the professions are accordingly clannish. Tribes stick together, reaching out to their own, embedding their advantages generation upon generation. Few are so gauche as actually to wear the old school tie these days, but certain things are understood.


It leads to black comedy. Private education accounts for 7% of school pupils in this country, yet 75% of English judges manage to evade the state system. Studies demonstrate that state proles cope better with university than those who have been fed from a spoon, yet still 40% plus of students at Oxbridge colleges boast privately-attained qualifications.


The tale is repeated everywhere, as Milburn, a bootstrap-raised boy himself, reports. Elite education is represented extravagantly, increasingly, in the law, medicine, the media (oh, indeed), politics, finance, and the civil service. In the last of these no fewer than 45% of mandarins attended private schools. Policy meetings on issues of state education must be, as it were, educational.


Yet surely all of this is nothing more than testimony to the superiority of a good public (private) school?


Doesn’t it prove, albeit by a circular logic, that the state gulag is worthless, good for little more than the production of Big Brother contestants, football players, and bolshy low-end public sector workers?


All those judges and journalists, all those consultants and civil servants: the middle to upper must hold rank for a reason.


No, says Milburn, though he says it in a whisper. He is not the New Labour sort to admit the game is rigged, but his findings point that way.


An enormous amount of talent is being wasted because those who buy or inherit their chances are crowding out the rest. And the rest are not, by any stretch of reason, mere dunderheads ‘failed by the system’.


I’ll summon myself, because I’m handy, as a witness. I went from an Edinburgh housing scheme and a comprehensive with the biggest school roll in western Europe to Edinburgh University and what clods call a ‘good’ honours degree.


Because I was freakishly clever? If only. Because my school peers were dummies ill-served? I could name a dozen smarter than me.


The public school folk who swarmed over the university were another matter. Clever? Exquisitely prepared? It turned out that too often all the expensive preparation had precluded the necessity to read much, or to learn much punctuation beyond the pebble-dash method.


Their futures were never seriously to be doubted, however.


For that piece of education, Edinburgh can take its bow. I got to meet people, many nice enough, who ‘assumed’. As in: ‘Got a career in mind?’ ‘Well, I assume’ And I was not in the least surprised.


Milburn’s report states that the professions are at the heart of something called the ‘new opportunity story’.


He believes, for whatever reason, that the decline in social mobility is ‘bottoming out’. This must be why 70% of finance directors – and fully 32% of MPs – are drawn from the 7% private school minority who run things for the other 93%. While putting their children down for ‘opportunity’ at birth, obviously.


Milburn wants to abolish fees for students who stay at home. If you live in Banff and fancy Cambridge, therefore, forget it. Universities must also take ‘social background’ into account.


They and the professions should even ‘publish figures’ – that will sort it. Then the universities should ‘become more involved in schools’


while the poorest children are given vouchers. A change from free dinner tickets, then.


Give me, if needs be with a degree attached, a break. We are talking about theft, the appropriation of resources by a self-selecting elite, and all of it subsidised by the excluded, at a social and economic cost beyond counting.


The Oxbridge system and its public school feeders are a scandal requiring legislative reform.


Edinburgh and St Andrews, to name two on this side of the border, are implicated.


Grammar schools, selection, and patronising bursaries for the afflicted are distractions, meanwhile, guaranteed to return us to the viciousness of deselection and waste that prevailed before comprehensive schooling.


And at bottom, in the lower depths, lies the New Labour legacy. The project of Blair, Brown and Milburn allowed the idea that anyone with money can buy anything money can buy. The ladder, the long ladder, was pulled up a generation ago.


They have no right to pretend otherwise now.