The iron law is that our inequality is unequalled

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Many years ago, the Advisory Centre for Education used to publish, side by side, two annual league tables of local education authorities. The first showed the proportion of young people from each area who went to university; the second showed the proportion of the local population from social classes I and II.

The tables were almost identical, and they changed very little from year to year. Richmond and Solihull were always at or near the top, Bootle and Barnsley at or near the bottom. It was calculated that a solicitor's son in Carmarthenshire was 180 times more likely to go to university than a docker's daughter in West Ham. (Yes, as the darts commentators would cry, "One hundred and eighty"!) Somebody called it "the iron law of social class", and it should be noted that it was promulgated before any of the usual suspects arrived: before comprehensives, before Real Books, before "trendy" Sixties-trained teachers had been long enough in schools to constitute a trend. Even Professor Ted Wragg had only recently left innocent classroom employment.

In those pre-computer days, these were just about the only educational league tables that were published. Now, we are drowning in them and they are awaited as eagerly as the soccer results. Yet for all the expenditure of newsprint, they tell almost exactly the same story. Successful children and successful schools tend to be in the affluent, middle-class areas; failing schools and failing children tend to be in what we still call deprived, working-class areas - though the real trouble is that in such areas not many people are now working.

The only significant change is that the Tory party has noticed that "failing" schools have something else in common apart from a deprived pupil intake: they are all run (most of the time, at least) by Labour local authorities. The iron law of social class has therefore been replaced by the iron law of foolish voting, which seems to state that, if working-class people were sensible enough to vote Tory, all their children could go to Balliol.

Does this mean, then, that the present league tables should be scrapped and replaced by whatever alchemical "value-added" formulae can be concocted by Professor Harvey Goldstein and his colleagues at the London Institute of Education? I think not.

The advisory centre published league tables because it wanted to highlight inequality and injustice. We can take the same message from the primary school league tables. What is wrong with them is not that they are crude, but that they are used to blame teachers, to demoralise the "failing" schools and to score political points. They could just as well be used to remind us that we still live in a society of gross and dangerous inequalities.

While we are about it, let us see more league tables. Let us see tables for burglary, vandalism and violence; for premature death and chronic illness; for damp houses and high-rise flats; for evictions and repossessions; for suicide and family breakdown; for child abuse and drug abuse; for unemployment and low wages; for dependency on means-tested benefits; for debt and rent arrears; for malnourished children and mothers on tranquillisers.

The areas that came near the bottom on these measures would, almost for sure, be the same as those served by the primary schools at the bottom of this week's league tables. Are the police, the GPs, the marriage guidance counsellors, the social workers the architects and surveyors, the jobsearch offices, the benefit offices, the pawnbrokers, the pharmacists to be held responsible, along with the teachers? Are they all, in some sense, infected by Sixties "trendiness"? Have they been omitting to set goals and appraise each other?

I do not mind Professor Goldstein's statistical black arts. I can see that "value added" would be a much fairer and more useful way of assessing a school's performance. But I remain suspicious of any device that hides inequality from public view, implying that it is an immutable part of the natural order and that the only "problem" is school performance.

Suppose that, at five, we gave every child a reading test marked out of 100. Suppose that the average score for inner-city schools was 10, and that for suburban schools 30. Suppose, at seven or eight, we repeated the test and found that every inner-city school in the country had added an average 20 points (200 per cent), every suburban school an average 15 (50 per cent). Would this "value-added" triumph for the inner-city schools mean that educational deprivation had been abolished?

The primary school league tables (for all the caveats about their inaccuracies) are a telling snapshot of the inequalities in our society. They are unusually revealing because primary schools are generally very local institutions and most social statistics cover larger and more diverse areas.

As a society, we have lost the will to fight inequality - the term has almost disappeared from the political debate.

So we look to the schools to perform miracles and send in hit squads and improvement teams. Yes, I know schools make a difference. But I am old-fashioned enough to think that poverty and social inequality make a bigger difference. The gap between our best-performing and worst-performing schools is the largest in Europe. It is also true that we are the most unequal society in Europe. It is time to make that connection, and put the blame where it belongs.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today