Two bites at the cherry

Peter Wilby

The schools shake-up south of the border is framed to reward the middle classes who voted Blair into Downing Street , says Peter Wilby

It is impossible to understand the latest white paper on education in England unless you grasp that Labour is now a middle-class party. This may seem a truism, but what it means is rarely understood. As recently as 1964, Labour won an election with only 20 per cent of the middle-class vote. In the 2001 election, for the first time in British history, more middle-class people voted for Labour than for the Conservatives. Even more remarkably, the majority of Labour's vote came from non-manual workers.

New Labour's central mission was to make public services acceptable to the middle classes. The only alternative, its leaders believed, was the collapse of the welfare state. If the middle classes drifted off to private health and private education, the state sector was doomed; the middle classes would not continue to pay taxes for services they did not themselves use.

That is why, whatever the spin, a white paper that improved the chances of poor children, relative to those of children from more affluent homes, was inconceivable. A few weeks ago, the papers were full of speculation. The white paper might, we were told, propose that places in oversubscribed schools would be decided by lottery. Or it might revive banding, with all children taking a test at the age of 11, so that each secondary school had a spread of abilities. These were about as likely as the Prime Minister joining al-Qaeda.

Over the past eight years, ministers have striven to increase parental choice, with city academies, specialist schools and trust schools. The effect is to create a pecking order of schools, each with the power to control its own admissions. For a whole host of reasons, mostly familiar to readers of these pages, middle-class parents are at a huge advantage in getting their children into the "best" schools - or more precisely, in keeping their children out of those in which the rougher sort predominate.

The white paper does nothing to reverse these advantages. On the contrary, it further downgrades local education authorities, which were among the few counter- influences. Schools are to be given independence so that they operate much as private schools do, but without the fees. Private schools do not compete for the difficult and less able pupils. Period, as the PM would say.

Banding indeed appears in the white paper. It is to be "encouraged". In the same way, ministers "encourage" pubs to stop serving so much booze to inebriated teenagers. Banding cannot work unless all the schools in an area agree to adopt it, and I cannot see why they would. A school with an above average entry would risk a decline in its league table position and subsequent obloquy.

The white paper also promises transport subsidies so that poor children can travel to "good" schools. Will these, I wonder, cover journeys to parent evenings and other school events? As for "choice advisers", I have a little personal experience. That was more or less my role when, some years ago, I took on a five-week course in "parents' rights" at a nearby college. It was on a council estate; the parents who enrolled were solidly middle-class.

By trying to make the state sector palatable to the middle classes, new Labour is turning what were previously egalitarian services into vehicles for positional advantage. The middle classes now have two bites at the cherry in both health and education. They can muscle their way to the head of the queue and grab the best provision in the state sector. If that fails, they can fall back on the private sector. The poor have to put up with what's left. Increasingly they find, in their own communities, that schools, GP services and hospitals, having been branded as failures, are declining or non-existent.

I am not sure how much comfort it will be to these people when an "adviser"

explains that, if they complete a dozen forms in triplicate, their children may be accepted at an establishment on the other side of town.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman.

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