How class rules the classroom

17th October 1997, 1:00am


How class rules the classroom
A CLASS ACT: THE MYTH OF BRITAIN'S CLASSLESS SOCIETY. By Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard. Hamish Hamilton Pounds 17.99.

The Commons looks as uniform as the morning assembly in a private school which has just started admitting girls." This is how the Observer's Andrew Adonis, and Stephen Pollard of the Social Market Foundation, wittily describe the end of any apparent class difference in parliament since New Labour's triumph. What of the rest of society?

Britain as school assembly is, it seems, still divided between the oiks at the local sink school and the top-hatted toffs of Eton. This is the flavour of A Class Act, a heavyweight version of a Militant Tendency reader, peppered with statistics and quotes that will help even the most ardent of Blairities re-discover their class warrior soul.

For anyone who enjoys a romp through the multitude of examples of how the Establishment maintains its class advantage, from membership of golf clubs to dominance of the public school system, this will be entertaining reading.

But is this a helpful contribution to our understanding of class in Nineties Britain? While the material is illuminating in showing that class has an impact on a person's social position, the project is flawed. I mean,who actually believes in the "myth of Britain's classless society" referred to in the title? Apparently very few. The authors themselves cite a 1991 Mori survey in which five to one responded that "there will never be a classless society in Britain". This means that the book spends too much time stating the glaringly obvious.

The chapter on education suffers from this tendency, telling us what we already know. We are offered the banal revelation that "money buys a good education and the opportunities that follow, and the absence of money denies them". And - shock, horror - private school pupils fare better than their state peers; there is a relationship between the Oxbridge intake and private schools; Oxbridge graduates dominate among generals and judges.

Stronger on the past than on contemporary trends, the authors do provide a useful expose of how the comprehensive revolution did not remove the link between education and class, but strengthened it. Echoing A H Halsey's recantation, it is argued that comprehensivisation, far from spreading classless schools, gave a powerful impetus to further segregation and replaced selection-by-ability with selection-by-class and house price.

An attack on the supposedly classless progressive teaching of Plowden et al. is too brief - but thought-provoking. The conclusion - that the classroom cannot be used to overcome the class differences so embedded outside the classroom - is avoided.

This is a continual frustration with A Class Act. Every time a new insight is hinted at, the authors back away and resort to old truisms. Stating that education is the engine of social mobility does not explain why it is now viewed as the only means of social mobility - indeed, more pessimistically, as necessary for survival.

Ironically, the explanation lies in the decline of class as a significant political force (rarely touched on in the book; the decline of the trades unions is ignored). Employees who want a pay increase are more likely to do a part-time university course than to go on strike.

One of the more promising aspects of A Class Act is its assertion that, to understand Britain's segregated society, it is not enough to recite statistics and reports: rather an understanding of national institutions and their contemporary social role is vital, looking at who runs them and who benefits. This sounds hopeful.

I was looking forward to a critical examination of some of the new, contemporary forms of class rule. Unfortunately the authors confine themselves to an examination of the usual suspects: public schools, Oxbridge, the Crown (oh dear, how wrong they are here; the Princess of Hearts phenomenon, apparent long before her death, barely gets a mention), the Lords, the BBC and NHS.

Where there is a brave attempt at examining one new institution, the National Lottery, "the kind of institution the Church of England always wanted to be, but never succeeded in becoming", the book comes alive. But this is the exception. Instead the authors play safe by stressing social continuity to prove their point about a class-divided society rather than examining what has changed.

This was a missed opportunity. It would have been more interesting to look at new institutions. A dissection of the non-elected quangos which have such an influence on education, such as the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, would have been fascinating. Who are these people that tell us that General National Vocational qualifications are equivalent to A-levels? Are their children all building portfolios of evidence in the local FE or studying classics at Fettes? An analysis of who sat on the Dearing Committee would have been an insightful exercise in examining the Establishment's new personnel.

That A Class Act avoids the difficult questions, let alone the answers, is frustrating. But it is worth reading to remind ourselves that we need to consider class when looking at society's institutions and that there is more to Britain than the Blairite classless clones who run the country.

Claire Fox is education editor of LM Magazine and a lecturer in further education

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