. But schools are at the forefront of reforms to give disadvantaged children the chance to finally break free from their economic stranglehold
When Salma Haji graduated from Cambridge University with a first- class degree last summer, her parents could not have been prouder.
They came to England from India in their early twenties with no education after the age of 16. After settling in Hackney in east London, Salma's father worked as a bus conductor while her mother was a housewife.
Salma's working-class background has not stopped her achieving: she is now continuing her studies at Oxford University as she works towards her ultimate ambition of becoming a neurosurgeon.
But such uplifting stories of children from humble backgrounds are not the norm. Research shows levels of social mobility in England worsened between the 1950s and 1970s, and have stagnated for at least the past 20 years.
Growing gaps between the incomes of rich and poor in the 1980s added to the problem, academics say. And the expansion of university education benefited middle-class school-leavers at the expense of their working- class peers.
The situation does not appear to be worsening, but after more than a decade of Labour government it does not seem to be improving either. Under the Every Child Matters agenda, ministers are committed to all young people being able to "achieve economic wellbeing". The framework calls for opportunities to be available for young people to go on to further or higher education and be ready for employment when they leave. But critics say that with social mobility stuck at such low levels, the chances for young people to break free of the economic situation into which they are born are extremely limited.
Last week, the Child Poverty Action Group published a report claiming that a child's right to economic wellbeing - one of the five aims of Every Child Matters - "has been muted, especially within the educational arena".
Research published last December by the Sutton Trust education charity, which has funded studies of social mobility, found that the background of parents continues to exert a "very strong influence on the academic progress of children". Bright pupils from poor homes are overtaken by less able children from affluent homes by the age of seven, the report said.
The international perspective is also worrying. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) has compared the impact of family background on attainment in 54 countries. In 2003, the most recent study, England was where the two factors were most closely linked.
The Commons education select committee is considering an investigation into social mobility and whether education policy is to blame. Barry Sheerman, its chairman, told The TES that a "radical rethink" of public policy might be needed to improve the situation.
But the Every Child Matters agenda for economic wellbeing goes far beyond what can be achieved in schools. Teachers can do little, for example, to ensure pupils live in sustainable communities or homes free of poverty.
But teachers have dealt with a raft of reforms designed to improve the attainment of pupils from poor areas in a bid to break the cycle of deprivation and ensure school-leavers are ready for work.
Sizeable investment has been made in schemes such as Excellence in Cities and London Challenge, which is being expanded to the Black Country and Greater Manchester. Money has also been poured into Sure Start to give pre-school children in deprived areas a more level playing field.
Other major changes to address economic equality are being introduced with the launch of diplomas from this September, and legislation to increase the leaving age from education or training to 18.
A TES survey of almost 870 secondary teachers found they are yet
to be convinced that diplomas will better engage youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. Forty per cent of respondents said diplomas would make a difference, but 30 per cent said they would not. Another 30 per cent said they did not know.
But Peter Newton, assistant head at King Richard School in Paulsgrove, a deprived area of Portsmouth, says vocational courses linked with local businesses are helping to break cycles of generational unemployment.
"Students are seeing the point of what they are doing," he says. "They get a high-quality curriculum and a practical context, which is helping to raise their aspirations."
Underachievement among white working-class boys has proved an apparently intractable problem nationally. And increasing the leaving age for education or training has had a mixed response.Stephen Machin, of University College London, who carried out the Sutton Trust research on social mobility, thinks the policy could have a positive impact based on results in the United States and Scandinavia.
But analysis for the right-of-centre Policy Exchange think-tank said this would make it harder for young people to find jobs because firms will stop hiring them to avoid regulation and inspections.
In other TES survey findings, 62.5 per cent of teachers said providing extra-curricular activities helped raise pupil attainment. But almost two- thirds of teachers said their schools did not run programmes aimed at narrowing the education gap.
Extended schools are designed to give opportunities to pupils from poor families. Money is being made available by the Government for deprived pupils, but the bulk of it will not kick in until 2010-11.
In the meantime, a number of extended school clubs in poor areas have been forced to close because parents cannot afford the fees that are charged to cover costs. Research by New Philanthropy Capital highlights that children in deprived areas are being denied access to extra-curricular activities because they are too expensive. It is an uncomfortable fact for the Government that the children with most to gain are being denied the opportunities they need.
AIMS FOR EVERY CHILD
Schools today are expected to nurture the whole child, not just their academic side. Nowhere is this clearer than in the five "outcomes" they are meant to ensure for children.
The aims were first introduced nearly five years ago as part of the Government's Every Child Matters strategy. But their relevance is growing: schools are judged against them and the outcomes underpin the Children's Plan, launched in December, which covers the next 10 years.
In this special six-part series, The TES examines what schools are doing, what they are missing, and whether they can realistically make a difference.