THE discussion around top-up fees for universities in England has highlighted, paradoxically almost as a side issue, aspects of the effects of both elitism in general and socio-economic deprivation in particular.
It is clearly true that universities are populated by the children of the better off; 17 per cent of the lower socio-economic groups go on to higher education while nearly 50 per cent of the higher groups do so. At the "top" universities, nearly four out of every 10 students come from independent schools.
This has led those favouring the continuation of this massive over-representation to put the blame on the state sector and teachers for failing to compete. Yet the desire to look only at the raw exam results means that the social and economic context of what is spent per child is conveniently ignored.
The latest figures for Scotland (and the picture is very similar in Britain as a whole) indicate that the average pupil-teacher ratio in independent schools is 10.6:1, while in state schools it is 18.6:1. The independent schools thus have much smaller classes (particularly S1-S4). Consequently they have better interaction, outlined in all HMI Standards and Quality reports as essential to good learning.
Smaller class sizes in the independent sector can come about because of the significantly greater amounts spent per pupil compared with the state sector; at least twice, and in some schools 10 times, the level. Fees in Britain (where, overall, some 7 per cent of children attend independent schools, although the figure is lower in Scotland) amount to more than pound;3.5 billion and charitable status means that independent schools can avoid most taxes on, for example, income, stocks, shares, trusts, property, inheritance and endowments, thus boosting overall spending per child. Pro rata the UK education budget would have to be raised from pound;48 billion to well over pound;70 billion.
Many of the independent schools are selective but, even without that, it is no wonder that pupils do better academically. Labour used to have as its declared aim the question of raising the standard in the state sector to such a level that even well-off parents wouldn't educate their children privately. This is a pipedream without massive increases in spending, at the very least dramatically reducing average class sizes in the state sector, without destroying subject choice.
But the most recent survey of European spending shows that, in GDP terms, Britain is 19th out of 38, spending less than Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova. A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies claims that spending on education in Britain is at a 40-year low.
There is also a growing gap between schools within the state sector, between the "haves" and the "have nots". Research into the educational effects of poverty in Glasgow and Sheffield shows that drawing up lists of schools on the basis of indicators of socio-economic deprivation or even a crude averaging of family income would produce a similar league to the one published on exam results. The contrasts are brutally stark.
Is this just carping and envy? Surveys from, for example, Save the Children Scotland suggest that in the fourth year of the Scottish Parliament there has been virtually no improvement in the numbers of children living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claims that there are 13.2 million people living in poverty in Britain, 3 million of them children.
This is the challenge for the Scottish Parliament. All the welcome rhetoric of social inclusion does not alter the impact of poverty and its effects on education and something has to be done about it. The league tables hold no surprises; they are the mirror image of that poverty.
Thus, while educational effort is put into trying to examine the tiny differences between like departments in like schools, the eye is taken off the real issue. Inequality is not a side effect of poverty; they are inextricably linked.
Government micro policies (homework clubs, for example) can clearly have a positive overall effect (although not in terms of inequalities), although even here real spending issues such as large reductions in class sizes and extra teachers in schools in deprived areas are not contemplated by new Labour - which is why disappointment is so widespread.
Henry Maitles is senior lecturer in social studies education in Strathclyde University's education faculty.