Leader: Class still the secret to success

Those with a private-school education still attend the best universities, get the best jobs and hold top spots in academia

October 8, 2009

One of the CBI task force's recent recommendations was to postpone the Government's 50 per cent target for participation in higher education until we can afford it. But widening participation is not a luxury: it's a necessity. It is essential for a decent, fair and equitable society - and for the nation's future prosperity.

It does not help that academia is seen as an elitist pursuit. Some 42 per cent of our leading scientists and scholars were privately educated, according to a report by the Sutton Trust, a figure much higher than for the leaders of their institutions (but lower than for journalists - 54 per cent). Sadly, the future looks just as bleak.

If current student-intake trends to leading research universities continue, independent-school pupils will continue to be over-represented in the next generation of scientists and scholars. What message does that give?

Private schools educate 7 per cent of the school-age population and 15 per cent of A-level entrants, yet account for one third of undergraduate students at top-ranked universities. About half the population hail from the lower four social classes - but make up just 16 per cent of entrants to leading universities, meaning that the richer part of the population accounts for the remaining 84 per cent. And the proportion of students from the poorest areas of the country is pitifully low, at just 4 per cent.

Social mobility in the UK has got slightly worse, not better, as Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, has argued powerfully. Despite all the money the Government has thrown at widening participation, if anything we have managed the converse: narrowing participation. As Smith has pointedly stated, in 2005, the probability of going to university for the top two social classes was 78 per cent, the same figure as in 1948. For the bottom social class it was 13 per cent, 1 per cent lower than in Clement Attlee's Britain.

But even leaving equality aside, if the idea is that our top universities should turn out the best graduates who will become the captains of industry of tomorrow, we should be making sure that we are indeed recruiting the best brains, not just the best groomed.

Students in comprehensive schools - and especially those with no track record in admissions to elite higher education - are less likely to apply to prestigious institutions, even when armed with the appropriate A-level grades. They are less confident in their abilities than their private-school counterparts and are deterred by various misconceptions. A recent report commissioned by the Sutton Trust and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for example, shows that pupils in high-performing independent schools make twice as many applications to elite institutions as their peers in similarly high-performing comprehensives.

Not only are private pupils up to five times more likely to get A*-grade GCSEs in core academic subjects, they also account for more than one third of the top grades in A levels such as physics, chemistry and economics, the subjects that lead to places at the leading research universities.

Is this the kind of society we want, one in which aspirations are suffocated at birth? In a week of global success for the UK, we should spare a thought for those we have failed.

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