magine two 10-year-olds at primary school, both born in 1958. One child's father has a professional job, the other is an unskilled labourer. Both children are among the brightest in their class, but when they grow up the middle-class child will be three times more likely than his friend to find a professional job.
Now jump 12 years, to two similar 10-year-olds born in 1970. Selective education has given way to the supposedly more egalitarian comprehensive system. The expansion of higher education will soon begin. Surely the bright working-class child will not now be so hampered by his background?
Not so, according to the findings of two teams of researchers who have analysed the latest results of three long-term research studies. The clever working-class child born in 1970 was just as disadvantaged as his predecessor, they found.
Even more shockingly, perhaps, researchers at the London School of Economics and at the Institute of Education in London found some groups of children were actually less likely to achieve a top job or a degree now than they were years ago.
They examined the results of three "cohort" studies, each of which followed several thousand children born in a particular week - the first in March 1946, the second in March 1958 and the third in April 1970 - throughout their lives.
They found the impact of class on a child's life chances was more marked after five decades of reform and despite a massive increase in the numbers getting degrees and white-collar jobs.
Researchers looked at the life chances of the brightest children in each group, based on cognitive ability tests set at around the age of 10. They found the clever working-class child born in 1958 had a one in four chance of being in a professional job at the age of 33, while his middle-class friend had a three in four chance. When the researchers looked at those born in 1970 they found the middle-class child's chances had declined slightly, but so had those of his low-income counterpart.
Girls did better than boys over those years, moving into higher-paid jobs and increasing their chances of gaining a degree. The Institute of Education found a third of girls born in 1970 had degrees at 30, compared with one tenth of those born in 1946 and a quarter born in 1958. A third of boys born in 1970 had degrees but that figure had risen more slowly than the number of girls. The earliest of the three studies found that a fifth of boys born in 1946 became graduates.
But when researchers from the LSE looked at which girls had benefited, they found something very striking. The affluent girls' educational chances had shot up, while the prospects of those from the poorest backgrounds had actually declined. A bright girl born into a low-income family in 1958 had a four in 10 chance of getting a degree. But the chances of a similar girl born 12 years later were less than three in 10. Conversely, a low-ability girl from a wealthy background increased her chances threefold over the same period, from 5 per cent to 15 per cent.
The findings contradict the received wisdom that British society has become more egalitarian in the past 50 years. While children from poor backgrounds do move up the social scale, they do so no more regularly now than they did just after the Second World War.
This raises an issue that is almost shockingly heretical. Does this research challenge the belief that education is the key to social change? As researchers from the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance point out in an unpublished paper using the cohort study data: "Education has long been seen as a powerful force with the potential to increase opportunity and promote social mobility. Equality of access to education has been a central plank of many policies to advance children from less well-off backgrounds, to break generational cycles of deprivation and to encourage economic growth." Was this view wrong?
On this issue, the researchers are reassuring. For an individual child from a low-income background, education is definitely the best route to a better future, they say. The LSE team found working-class graduates' career prospects were just as good as their middle-class counterparts'. While poor students were still less likely to get degrees, they said, after graduation their social disadvantage completely disappeared. The question was not whether education was really the best route out of poverty, but why education reform had not opened that route to more.
Jo Blanden, a researcher at the Centre for Economic Performance, argued that higher education change was needed for a variety of reasons.
"If we hadn't had that reform, what would have happened? There were huge forces promoting greater skill demand over those years. I think probably the expansion in higher education was needed, but it should have been more carefully thought- through in terms of the social mobility dimension," she said.
There were pressing economic reasons for the expansion of the universities, but the abolition of selection had a far more explicit egalitarian motive.
If disadvantaged children born in 1970 and educated in comprehensive schools actually had fewer opportunities than disadvantaged children born in 1958 and educated at grammar schools, what was it all for? Should we now applaud the reintroduction of selection through specialist schools?
Professor John Bynner, director of the Institute of Education's Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which runs the 1958 and 1970 cohort studies and which has just published a new book called Changing Britain, Changing Lives, thinks not. Comprehensive education has not failed, he said. It was never really introduced here at all.
"It made a big difference in Sweden," he said. "If you look at Scandinavia, when they ended selection they really did end it. There wasn't private education or any local authorities still running grammar schools. They found attainment went up in their comprehensive system and there was far less inequality. We never really bit the bullet on this."
Increasing the number of specialist schools will certainly not address the problem of inequality, he says. It is likely that it will exacerbate it because middle- class parents will elbow their working-class counterparts aside in their rush to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. But, he adds, education cannot be blamed for all the ills of British society.
Other, deeper-rooted factors have made our class system more inflexible than those of other European countries.
"We're committed to hierarchy here in a way that isn't common anywhere else," Professor Bynner said. "The continued existence of the House of Lords and the aristocracy are symptomatic of a desire to maintain a society that's very stratified. But if we wanted to do anything about it, education would be one of the means we would use."
"Changing Britain, Changing Lives", from the Institute of Education bookshop, tel: 020 7612 6050, email: email@example.com Professor John Bynner: firstname.lastname@example.orgThe LSE research is being done by the Centre for Economic Performance. An article is available in the CEP journal, "Centrepiece", at www.centrepiece-magazine.comtel: 020 7955 7798.Jo Blanden: email@example.com
Ted Wragg, 72