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Slippery paths to the top

EDUCATION AND THE MIDDLE CLASS. By Sally Power, Tony Edwards, Geoff Whitty and Valerie Wigfall. Open University Press pound;17.99.

CLASS STRATEGIES AND THE EDUCATION MARKET. By Stephen J Ball. RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50.

EDUCATION DENIED: Costs and remedies. By Katarina Tomasevski. Zed Books pound;15.95.

Tony Blair has never been accused of claiming there is no such thing as society, as Margaret Thatcher has (see Book of the Week, overleaf). Society for Blair, though, is essentially middle-class. He looks for "a new, larger, more meritocratic middle classI with ladders of opportunity for those from all backgrounds and no more ceilings preventing people from achieving the success they merit".

New Labour's education reforms are driven by that vision. The question not generally asked is whether the ladders are equally reachable by all. How skilful, in this real-life game of snakes and ladders, are the existing middle classes at working the system to their children's advantage? And what are the snakes that may frustrate them?

Two important books address the issue and are in broad agreement on the answers. Very skilful indeed, they say: all the more so, because the snakes, though few, are further removed. The 11-plus used to be the big one; now, for most parents, it's A-level results and (the ultimate nightmare) the wrong sort of higher education.

Education and the Middle Class revisits in early adulthood the group of academically able middle-class children the authors studied in the 1980s when they researched the assisted places scheme. What did these families want from their children's education? What strategies did they follow, and how successful in the long run did they prove to be?

It depends what you mean by success. Generally, the parents' choices paid off. The "right" school led to "a good university" (even if, as one interviewee said, you had to "phone them for a week to haggle") and to a good (and definitely middle-class) job. Sometimes, though, it didn't. Even high-flyers could buckle under the constant pressure to succeed. "Failure against the odds," as the authors put it, was not uncommon.

But what of the wider educational effects of middle-class choice and pressure? The evidence, the authors say, suggests it diminishes the choices open to other parents. Middle-class flight weakens state schools structurally and symbolically; it makes it much harder for such schools to "succeed".

Stephen Ball's Class Strategies and the Education Market also addresses that issue. Ball writes from a sociological perspective, drawing on extensive reference to the literature and his own surveys to show how middle-class parents maximise their children's future chances (as they see them) at the four key transitional points - pre-school, primary school, secondary school and higher education.

It's not an easy book to read (the author himself describes it as "a cautious and stumbling text") but it's full of valuable perceptions: that much decision-making is effectively gendered, for instance, so that what mothers say to each other about local schools is a powerful factor. The anxiety factor comes across clearly, too. The more information parents have, the less they seem to trust it. The more they exercise choice, the more crucial their choice becomes; the more advantage they take of the education market, the more brittle their liberal principles seem.

A possible weakness is that his survey data is largely London-based.

Outside London, as Sally Power and her colleagues show, to support a local school was still (until Mr Blair's "bog standard comprehensive" comment) a common middle-class option. Everywhere, however, the middle classes have become more adept at playing the education market. They have more purchasing power, too: not just the ability to pay private school fees but also their bank of "social capital" - their networks and contacts, their confidence and knowledge. As Stephen Ball shows, schools have been quick to respond. Specialisation, selection, setting, programmes for the gifted, can all be seen as part of the market agenda.

The trouble with the education market is that not everybody has equal access to it. That's a global truth, as Katarina Tomasevski shows clearly in Education Denied. Professor Tomasevski is the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to education, and she knows her stuff. The free-market ideology, she says, is the price the developing world has had to pay to the west. The result everywhere has been the same: the weakening of public education in what she calls the "race to the bottom line".

Basic education, she reminds us, is a human right. To commodify it, even to specify (as the World Bank does) its purpose, is to deny that right; and people who are so denied (it's the converse of the middle class's special skill) bequeath that loss to their successors. If you marketise education, she says, you broaden the gap between the haves and the have-nots. You don't minimise exclusion, you create it.

Stephen Ball, who sees education policy as the focus of a new class struggle, firmly agrees. Sally Power and her colleagues, more conscious of the divided loyalties of the middle classes, think the jury is still out on the sort of society we are creating. All three books are challenging and important.

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