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Education is not enough to scale class barriers

So at last the phoney general election war is over, and political battle is to be joined in earnest. What Britain is going to do to improve its education system will become an even hotter political subject. If we want a meritocracy as Mr Blair declares he wants, and which the Conservatives can hardly oppose, education is obviously the number one candidate for change.

But in the days before the election was called, the Cabinet Office's Performance and Information Unit released an intriguing document denying that education was as relevant as the Prime Minister believed in promoting social mobility. It is nothing like as lurid as the accounts that hit the front pages, and its discussion status neither warrants making quite the waves that it did nor the stout denial of everything in its pages made by the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell. But it does pour a lot of cold water on the easy syllogism that more education by itself necessarily means a fairer society.

For, while educational credentials matter more and more in winning the better-paid and influential jobs, the evidence is that more or less the same middle-class people win the credentials as those who held better-paid and influential jobs in the past, but who didn't need A-levels, degrees and professional qualifications to the same extent to get to the top. If somebody from Eton was able to become a partner in a stockbroking firm in the 1950s without a degree from a top university, now that same Etonian will need a good degree - but Eton make sure he gets it.

Independent schools have rolled with the times, and delivered the necessary educational credentials along with personal networks and cultural advantages that private education confers to deliver a double whammy - intellectual credentials and social status combined.

The PIU marshalls the evidence to demonstrate that, paradoxically, as educational credentials become more important for getting into the uppe echelons of society, so education alone becomes less important as the key to upward mobility. If 30 per cent or more of 21-year-olds have a degree, then degrees are worth less than they used to be when only 5 per cent of 21-year-olds held them. What the race for mobility exposes is that the middle classes are very good at resisting going down the income and status hierarchy, and that the working classes still find it very hard to break in.

Nor is that surprising. The PIU cite French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as proving how cultural capital and know-ledge of social conventions - ranging from music to food - counts as a key to upward mobility while, in Britain, Leon Feinstein highlights how experience in very early childhood that point to self-esteem and sense of control over one's destiny is fundamental to labour market outcomes in later life. Middle-class families confer more than just paying for education or living near a good school in the race for educational credentials; they offer their children self-belief, networks and cultural capital that is no less essential. The chances of those being rolled back to make way for children from less advantaged families is close to nil. The only chance of real upward mobility is if there are a lot more jobs at the top. Or the middle classes stop being so good at success strategies for their children.

What this means is that education has to be valued for itself and for what it does for our general level of skills, capital and sociability. It cannot be characterised as an easy win-win that solves class conflict and creates a meritocracy. That demands a more aggressive approach, spending up to 10 times more on children in poor schools while using inheritance tax and the like to limit the advantages of being born into a wealthy family.

Sadly, such propositions will not be discussed during this election campaign - so the establishment of a meritocracy will remain as elusive as ever.

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