Britain's top universities are dominated by a supergroup of students from private or grammar schools and there is not much that new Labour can do about it, argues Andrew Adonis
One country, two systems. That was Gordon Brown's description of British education in his speech to last week's Labour party conference. "When in Britain only 30 per cent of young people can benefit from higher education and when at Oxford and Cambridge half the places still go to private schools, it is time to modernise," he declared.
He is right about the two systems. In Britain a state of virtual educational apartheid exists. Private schools and the 161 remaining state grammar schools, most of them in affluent areas with a largely professional client le, are the motorway system of modern British society. Educating barely 9 per cent of children, they dominate the entry not just to Oxbridge but to all Britain's "traditional" universities and thereby to all its elite professions and institutions. They are at the heart of the "Super Class" - a new upper class of mostly private-sector professionals, concentrated in London and the home counties, at once meritocratic yet exclusive, very highly paid yet powerfully convinced of its rewards, and increasingly divorced from the rest of society by wealth, education, values and lifestyles.
The statistics are devastating. Take medicine, arguably the most meritocratic profession of all and institutionalised within the National Health Service, supposedly Britain's most classless institution. A 1995 study by the British Medical Association found that 55 per cent of medical students were educated at private schools or state grammar schools, with three-quarters coming from professional-class families. One in five even had a doctor as mother or father, making medicine not just an exclusive, but a partly hereditary, profession.
Move to the older professions and the dominance of the elite school becomes a stranglehold. Of the 180 new officers who passed out of Sandhurst in August 1995, 120 were privately educated. A quarter came from just 15 institutions, headed by Eton and Radley with six officers apiece. Nowadays most officers go to university before or after Sandhurst, giving a meritocratic gloss to an almost Victorian pattern of privilege. Add in the fact that a third of today's Etonians are the sons of Etonians, and the character of Britain's modern class meritocracy is unmistakable.
The problem for Gordon Brown is that "one country, two systems" is not an ancient, indefensible relic like the House of Lords, waiting to be blown away by new Labour. On the contrary, it is the product of a thoroughgoing modernisation of Britain's private education system, which over the past 30 years has turned the old public schools into bastions of modern meritocracy.
In the Financial Times's 1996 survey of A-level performance in England's top 1,000 schools all but 22 of the top 200 were private. These 1,000 top schools include most of the private sector but only a fraction of the state sector; yet even within this selective group, including most of the remaining state grammar schools, the A-level performance of private schools was on average a quarter better than their state counterparts.
No surprise, then, that half of Oxbridge entrants come from private schools. For Oxbridge, like all Britain's top universities, operates an impeccably modern admissions system, awarding its places to students with the best A-level grades without fear or favour. As Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College, euphemistically puts it, there are "disparate standards of education in British secondary schools", but "it is not our policy to try to redress that imbalance by positive discrimination to the detriment of standards, still less to engage in social engineering".
Yet social engineering has already taken place - in the schools. Which brings us to the teaching profession, another new Labour target for modernisation. Between 1971 and 1997 the number of Oxford graduates going into state school teaching fell by nearly two-thirds. It now stands at less than 100 a year, compared to 900 a year going into the City, business, accountancy and the law. This flight from public service to the money pots is, of course, a supremely modern trend. However, the number of top graduates taking posts in independent schools has remained static, courtesy of better pay and high esteem. In most of the public schools a third of the staff, including new entrants, are Oxbridge-educated. Eton even boasts 20 PhDs, so dedicated is it to a modern meritocracy (fees Pounds 14,000 a year).
What, then, can we expect from Tony Blair's modernising crusade? In effect there are two separate new Labour agendas, though ministers and commentators confuse and conflate them. The first concerns failing schools - the third or so comprehensives, mostly in inner-cities with "sink estate" catchment areas, which languish in a virtually anti-education culture and where the great majority of pupils leave with practically no formal qualifications.
This is Mr Blair's priority project. "When a school disciplines a child why not back the teacher?", he told his party conference last week, urging the importance of homework, good teaching, literacy and "new measures to tackle truancy and disruptive children". There was no need to say any of this to the middle classes and their teachers, least of all in the private sector. It was a blunt lecture to Britain's working class - including the non-working underclass, to use the modern lingo - and most of the government's education policies are geared accordingly.
Tackling failing schools is an ambitious undertaking, and is part of a wider assault on social exclusion which new Labour has placed at the heart of its mission. But even if it succeeds, it will have little bearing on the second "modern" agenda declared by Gordon Brown - that of making Britain's elites, starting with its top universities, more representative of society at large.
Even if school performance at the bottom improves sharply, the absolute difference between top and bottom will remain huge. And it may not even improve much in relative terms. For the history of modern British education is of a great moving up show in which relative class differences have remained almost unchanged despite the improvement in education standards across society as a whole (see graph left). The transformation of the public schools is a prime case of this process at work.
The new government's higher education policy is a hard-headed recognition of this reality. Abolishing maintenance grants and introducing fees for students - albeit with tapers for the less well-off - is a frank acknowledgement that most students can afford to pay their way or regard a university education as worth paying for even it means taking out big loans. There is none of the old Labour sentimentality that "free" universities are essential for an open and mobile society.
So "one nation, two systems" is with us for the foreseeable future. In the short-term, the best that can be hoped is that the boundary between the two systems shifts somewhat, bringing more state schools into the "top class alongside the private and grammar schools". In the long-term, far more radical policies for integrating the state and private systems and guaranteeing access to universities for the poor may have to be considered. This could be the stuff of a Blair second or third term. It is off the agenda for now.
The author is a columnist at The Observer and a former fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. A Class Act, by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, is published by Hamish Hamilton, Pounds 17.99.