It is now 25 years since A H Halsey reached the bleak and apparently premature conclusion that "the essential fact of 20th-century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed".
But with less than three years to go to the new millennium, his assessment seems to have been largely substantiated. This week's reports from the Child Poverty Action Group and Dr Elizabeth Hunter-Grundin (page 1) provide more evidence that Britain's education system has been unable to improve the life chances of vast numbers of children. Pessimists who reason that education cannot compensate for society may be unsurprised to hear that the gap in GCSE achievement between high and low socio-economic areas is widening.
But it will disappoint the majority of teachers who do not believe in predestination.
CPAG's analysis should also make depressing reading for Conservative ministers. After all, a bullish John Major told us in 1992: "I am not prepared to see children in some parts of this country having to settle for a second-class education." However, it is unlikely that CPAG's revelations will surprise them either. Ministers can argue that poor areas have seen the same rate of increase in GCSE scores as the most prosperous ones, and that the gap in achievement has only grown because the former started off from a lower base. They can also counter that marital break-up, rather than Government economic and social policies, has pushed more children into poverty, although, of course, financial pressures kill off many marriages.
But, unfortunately, the main reason why CPAG's findings won't trouble the Conservatives unduly is that unemployment, poverty, and the social and personal devastation that they bring, have not been major issues in this election. The Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland pushed the topic briefly into the spotlight, and the Roman Catholic Church spoke up for poor inner-city schools. But the politicians have other, more pressing, concerns. In any case, both the Labour and Conservative education policy-makers clearly believe that it may be counter-productive to acknowledge that an impoverished environment invariably produces poor educational outcomes.
Low expectations can be self-fulfilling, and we should never forget that many children from relatively poor homes perform at the highest level while the children of professionals can sometimes flunk.
Recently, we have been treated to a series of Government statistical tables which demonstrate that schools with the same percentage of free school meals children can record widely differing GCSE and key stage 2 scores. Nevertheless, Colin Alston, Hackney's head of educational policy and research, was right to point out (TES, February 14) that there is a terrible predictability about any rank-order table of LEAs' GCSE performance. The "top 10" LEAs have average free meals levels of just 10 per cent, while the so-called "bottom 10" average 51 per cent on the free meals indicator.
Alston has argued persuasively for fairer tables and more realistic targets for individual schools. But obviously we need more than that. The next Government must be imbued with some of the passion that Michael Barber displays in this week's back-page comment. "For me, the election is about social justice and the role of education in bringing it about. Nothing more, nothing less. "
Education cannot work such miracles on its own. Housing, employment and health policies also need to reflect the fact that nearly one in three children is living below the poverty line (50 per cent of average income after housing costs). But Labour's proposed education action zones, a variation on Plowden's educational priority areas, could help, provided the politicians are prepared to give long-term commitment to such strategies. They never have in the past, but that must not prevent us hoping that they will in the future.