Middle classes will pay anything for privilege

7th February 2003 at 00:00
welcome the proposal from Charles Clarke to regulate university entry and try to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

My only regret is that I have to hear self-serving, complacent academics complaining again about "social engineering". They argue that, if poor children don't make it to university, this is the fault of state secondary schools. This slur against comprehensives has become conventional wisdom, alongside the belief that most burglars don't go to prison and there was no extra-marital sex before 1963.

Comprehensives are blamed for pretty much everything: teenage pregnancies, drugs, racist violence and, for all I know, paedophilia. I am reminded of the man in Katherine Anne Porter's novel, Ship of Fools, who listened patiently as a Nazi sympathiser explained how the Jews were to blame for everything from inflation to unemployment. "I myself blame the bicyclists," said the man. "Why the bicyclists?" asked the Nazi. "Why the Jews?" came the reply. In the same spirit, I blame everything on unisex hairdressers.

Why unisex hairdressers? Well, why comprehensives?

Academics, who supposedly hold their positions because of their capacity to think clearly and rigorously, should know better. Entry to university should be based on intellectual ability and potential, they argue. Fair point, but most universities make almost no attempt to assess ability and potential. They just tot up the A-level scores, and then admit the wrong people. There is ample evidence that the state-school pupil with, say, three B grades will get a better degree than the public-school pupil with the same qualifications.

This is not in the least bit surprising. Public-school pupils are better prepared for A-levels: throughout their school careers, they enjoy smaller classes, more highly-qualified teachers, better equipment, more parental support and institutions more focused on their needs.

What would happen if, as the universities demand, the state secondary schools were to be "sorted out" and their A-level results soared? We already know the answer. A-level results in the state sector have been soaring for 40 years. The fee-charging schools have simply put more resources and more effort into maintaining their position. And as more and more 18-year-olds get straight As, both the universities and the fee-charging schools complain that A-levels have become insufficiently discriminatory and that superior exams are needed.

Even if state schools were to get resources comparable to the fee-charging sector, the latter would simply raise their fees and stay in front. The English middle-classes, now that they find it difficult to secure positions for their children through social connections or old-fashioned employer snobbery, will pay almost any price to get the educational advantages that help to perpetuate privilege in the next generation.

That is the nub of it. Universities argue that admissions are their business alone; they are educational institutions and the sole criterion for entry should be academic ability. But the reality is that universities are no longer primarily about improving young minds and sensibilities. They are gateways to professional careers and distributors of life chances. They also receive substantial funds from taxpayers; the dustmen whose children attend state schools help pay for universities, so their offspring should have a fair chance of getting into them. The Government, therefore, has every right to perform social engineering on university entry procedures. I wish Charles Clarke well.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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