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Upwardly Immobile
September 2009

In 2000, Gordon Brown opened a can of worms when he criticised the medical tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford (me) for not giving a place to read medicine to Laura Spence, an applicant from a Newcastle comprehensive school. Her name became synonymous with Oxbridge's alleged prejudice against working-class entrants. 

The debate lingers on and I still feel that my 40 years' efforts to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students at Oxford were unfairly trashed. So I was very interested to read the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn's all-party report, Unleashing Aspiration: Fair Access to the Professions. It is spot on. Entry to the professions is still dominated by the upper-middle classes, who go to the best state or private schools. 

This is not due to class conspiracy, however, but to old-fashioned money. Since upper-middle-class families' incomes are a third higher than average, they can afford to send their children to private schools. Three quarters of judges and finance directors, 45 per cent of top civil servants and even one third of MPs went to private schools.

The main reason why there are so few working-class judges is that entry to the professions is highly competitive. Private schools can reliably deliver the required grades at A level, whereas many state schools can't. For example, you are eight times more likely to get three As if you go to a private school. Even for the very highly intelligent in the top two per cent of the population, if your family is unskilled, you're still 50 times less likely to get three As at A level than if your family were professional. This is not only unfair but grossly wasteful of talent. 

Clearly, therefore, the main way to help working-class children into the professions would be to improve state education. Indeed, the government has increased educational expenditure by £28 billion over the last decade, so that now we spend £60 billion per annum. They also had the "aspiration" to raise the amount of money spent per child from the current £5,000 per year to the average amount spent by the private schools of £8,000 per year, but this would cost another £10 billion. The current recession has probably put paid to that. 

To be fair, the extra cash has raised standards slightly. Nevertheless, one-third of 11-year-olds still fail to reach a satisfactory standard in reading and writing. About 10 per cent of both primary and secondary school classes have more than 30 pupils per teacher. And 35 per cent of pupils still fail to gain five good GCSE passes, and so they leave school essentially without any useful qualifications. Since most of those schools serve working-class areas it is not surprising that so few of their children get into university, let alone into a profession. 

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