MIDDLE-class children have benefited far more than their working-class counterparts from the expansion of university education over the past 20 years, new research reveals today.
The chance of a young person from a well-off background becoming a graduate has grown at a higher rate than that of a child from a more disadvantaged home. Bright working-class girls actually had less chance of getting a degree after the rapid university expansion of the 1980s than they did before it.
Conversely, the chances of a low-ability girl from a wealthy background increased from 5 to 15 per cent.
The findings, in long-term studies by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, London, come amid renewed ministerial attempts to close the class gap in universities.
They will also call into question the ability of the comprehensive system to improve the life chances of children from poorer homes.
The two teams of researchers investigated the results of "cohort studies" which have been following the lives of two groups of children, one born in 1958 and the other in 1970.
The LSE's centre for economic performance compared girls' and boys' degree chances according to their ability and their social background. They found, regardless of gender, that across all ability ranges, more of those from middle-class backgrounds had benefited than their working-class peers from the expansion of university education.
For example, the chance of a boy of high ability from a high income family becoming a graduate was 76 per cent among those born in 1970 - up 17 percentage points on 1958. By contrast, 43 per cent of high-ability boys born into working-class backgrounds in 1970 gained a degree, an increase of just eight points.
The researchers found the prospects of bright middle-class girls born in 1970 were much better than those of girls born in 1958, with the proportion who graduated rising 17 points to 77 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion of poorer girls who became graduates declined by nine points from 38 to 29 per cent.
The researchers at the Institute of Education used the same studies to discover how working-class pupils' chances of getting professional jobs changed over time. They found reforms including comprehensive schooling had failed to improve children's social mobility.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke was criticised this week after saying that the Oxbridge universities needed to do more to address their "Brideshead Revisited" image. The Government is to introduce an Office for Fair Access from 2005, which will monitor universities' attempts to attract students from poorer homes.
Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University said that different attitudes to education rather than university admissions policies, may explain the disparities. "If you come from a low income background, part of the script is to get out of the education system as quickly as possible, to earn money," he said.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Boys and girls from lower income groups recognise that they have to seek their financial rewards in jobs that don't depend on high-level qualifications."
Analysis, 22; Platform, 23; Ted Wragg, 72