GIVE most of us 30 seconds and we will have decided where our interlocutor lies in the class structure almost exactly. It is a daily exercise in cultural palaeontology. From verbal and visual cues we can place each other with uncanny accuracy. Your aspirations, loyalties and education are all revealed in an instant.
This is partly true everywhere, but most true in Britain. Class remains the key to income, style, acceptability and opportunity. The boundaries may be more porous than they were, but they exist as potently as ever.
Which is why the peak of the education system matters so much. Britain's top dozen universities are the single most important agency in the establishment of our place in the class system. If graduates from the older universities once peopled the civil service and bar, now they are found at dot.com firms and investment banks. Where there is money and power, you will find graduates of such institutions, and especially of Oxbridge. The old networks are as trusty and as personal as ever.
This is why the Laura Spence case had such resonance. We can say we are classless and that all universities are equal, but it just is not true. The best predictor of success remains a good Oxbridge degree. Every middle-class parent knows it. And the figures prove that their judgment in paying annual fees of pound;10,000 or more is right; private-school candidates are disproportionately represented in all the older universities even after adjusting for their A- level marks.
So when Gordon Brown took on Magdalen College over Laura Spence, you would have thought he was onto a winner. All parents want the best for their children, and the persistent bias against state candidates in the older universities, notwithstanding their academic qualifications, is scandalous. Yet he picked a political lemon. Right and Left accused him of futile posturing.
I have rarely seen such an avalanche of hyperbolic cant poured over a politician. To portray middle-class parents who pay for their children's education as victims of the state system is ridiculous.
That these champions of the private sector have no compunction in displacing the kids of poorer homes from their proper chance of maximising their intelligence inour leading universities, was never given a proper hearing. Instead the whole issue became open season on the inadequacies of mixed ability teaching and state education - even though state schools produce two thirds of students who achieve three As.
The notion that the education system is hostage to the class system, hardly surfaced. I felt some sympathy for the Magdalen admissions tutor; many comprehensive students do lack confidence and self-presentation skills. Few state schools organise the grooming and dry-run interviews like private counterparts; partly from lack of cash, and partly because the issue is not on their radar. Universities must look for not just the best academic results, but also presentational skills.
The Department for Education and Employment lists communicating and working with others as part of the curriculum for 16 to 19-year-olds, but it is unclear how hard-pressed state schools are meant to integrate them into their syllabuses. We find it hard to admit that such surface qualities should be so central to a child's life-chances.
But when those who work with the long-term unemployed like Glasgow's Wise Group say that "labour market aesthetics" (how young people present themselves) are central to getting service sector work, educationists should do the same for students.
And then there is persuading young men and women to apply for places at Oxbridge - or any university. Finance looms larger in potential students' lives. Those from poorer homes, notwithstanding means testing, are loath to assume the debts of studenthood.
In short, educational policy needs to take class more seriously. But I am optimistic. The Government can't be seen to make education into health's poor relation, so I expect three years of real growth in education spending, up to 6 per cent per annum when the comprehensive spending review is announced. And there are signs that David Blunkett has innovative plans to promote emotional and social as well as academic intelligence. The Spence affair may have more consequences than anybody has yet guessed.
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Will Hutton is chief executive of the Industrial Society and a former editor of the Observer