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Equality 2000?;Leading Article;Opinion

How naive some of our more idealistic hopes appear in retrospect. Back in 1944, it seemed that poverty would no longer disbar working-class children from attending grammar school. The introduction of free secondary schooling had seen to that.

Expectations rose again when the comprehensive revolutionaries fired their cannons. But here we are at the glowing fag end of the century and, in some respects, little has changed. In Liverpool, free meals have to be ladled out to 40 per cent of comprehensive pupils - but only 6 per cent of grammar-school pupils are poor enough to need them.

Such statistics should always, of course, come wrapped in a "handle with care" label. Other information - on ethnicity and postcodes, for instance - should also be taken into account in assessing social disadvantage or measuring schools' achievement (see School Management, page 26).

But the educational caste system is remarkably resilient. It is possible that next year's grammar-school ballots will strike a blow for social equality - but experience suggests otherwise. As Professor AH Halsey has said: "The essential fact of 20th-century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed." Roll on the 21st.

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