Leagues apart

February 6, 1998

University education has grown vastly. More women and ethnic minorities take part, but working class numbers are still low. A.H. Halsey says major changes are needed in an educational system that dooms the majority to failure.

I am prejudiced. The golden era of one lecturer to every eight students and of universities as centres of the Enlightenment-inspired search for truth transformed my life in the late 1940s, carrying me from childhood on a working-class housing estate to a chair at Oxford. That is a pleasant illustration of the widely neglected truth revealed by Walter Muller's nine-country study of the first half of the 20th century. Muller showed that Britain compared favourably with France in that 65 per cent of graduates in Britain did not have upper- or middle-class origins compared with a French proportion of 45 per cent.

For the British population as a whole, the chances of graduation have multiplied by at least ten from my birth in the 1920s to my grandchildren's birth at the end of the century. For me, the chances of attending a university were no more than 1 in 100; for them they are at least 1 in 3. But despite the fact that we have moved to universities now described in international comparisons as "mass", recruitment from the working class remains unusual, in relative if not absolute terms. Does this class inequality matter? And if so what prescriptions are possible?

The remedy for this paradoxical condition of contemporary affairs has to be set in a description of the rapid social and educational changes that have taken place over the past 50 years. Like most advanced countries, Britain has undergone unprecedented shifts in its social environment and has but sluggishly adapted its educational institutions. The traditional universities and schools assumed strong families, teachers with high status in their community, a shared culture of learning in collaboration with the book and the lecture, and, above all, a strongly held social stratification with steeply selective steps in the upbringing of children from infancy to entry into the work force. All these contextual elements have been severely modified, pedagogically for the worse.

Before the war, most under-14s learned language, manners and morals from their families and, after leaving school at 14, discipline and skills from older workmates. A tiny minority, no more than 5 per cent, did not grow up in families but were sent from upper-class homes or imperial stations in India or Africa to the quasi-family of the private boarding school until they were 18. They then went to careers in the City, the armed services, the empire or the universities en route to the established professions. Universities were mainly finishing schools for the sons of the rich.

There was a fair minority of bookish students. There was, too, a ladder of social promotion for the quarter to a third of scholarship-holding undergraduates with working-class antecedents, often bound for teaching in the steadily growing number of secondary schools. The picture varied geographically. Grammar school output was nearly zero in the East End boroughs, whereas in parts of Wales it was more than a quarter.

The class composition of university students similarly varied from less than 10 per cent from manual working families at Oxford through twice that proportion in the gradually growing redbricks of provincial England and three times that in the Welsh and Scottish universities.

Above all, the prewar universities were places where a quiet revolution of scientific discovery was laying the foundation, not only of victory in the second world war, but also of transformation of the peace-time economy.Great strides were made in university laboratories leading to longer, wealthier lives and, incidentally, a diminution by roughly a half of the working-class proportion of the population. The demand for educated people grew as pen-pushing jobs replaced muscle power. New professions and expanding management gradually changed the internal life of the universities. The campus looked more and more to a future of vocationally oriented, earnest learners coping, especially on the science side, with the ever more crowded syllabuses generated by their research-oriented mentors.

In the longer run, universities were settling down to a duller life. They were establishing themselves as the gateway to professional and managerial life and to the "superclass" that is now dominated by private-sector professions such as law and by quasi-professions such as stockbroking and accounting. Economic liberalism encourages the denizens of the City, the board rooms and the law courts to pay themselves monstrous salaries. Oxford and Cambridge have taken full advantage of these opportunities, as graduates' destinations show. The same ideology also promotes minimal government spending, which has conspicuously impoverished universities, even while governments have demanded student expansion and represented a series of financial cuts since 1981 as "efficiency gains".

The explanation for continuing class in-equalities in the numbers of students at Britain's universities is not mysterious. It does not involve an abandonment of the meritocracy to which the universities in general and Oxbridge admissions tutors in particular have become committed. The old days of meagre demand for places and their filling by founders' kin and favours to alumni's offspring are long gone. Corrupt entry of that kind is now virtually zero.

We must look for the first cause in the changed composition of the working class itself and not in failures of meritocratic selection. Equality of entry has been secured by women and is being attained by ethnic minorities, given their under-privileged scatter through the class hierarchy. Class remains the stubborn barrier to distribution by merit. The pattern of admissions to universities closely conforms to A-level performances and as such cannot be seriously faulted.

The first cause is fiercely disputed between genetic and environmental schools of thought. Genetic explanations, though no doubt of importance between individuals, are imperfect discriminators between classes. But circumstances are powerful predictors of individual success. The formidable process of polarisation that has descended on British society since 1979 has increased unemployment (overwhelmingly working class in its incidence), weakened family and community ties and concentrated lone-parent and so-called problem families in dilapidated, crime-ridden city housing estates. Today four million (nearly a third) of the nation's children are living in homes with less than half of the national average income, compared with 10 per cent when Thatcher came to power.

These are indicators of persistent class impediments to learning. Nor is poverty of income, housing and social amenities the whole story. There is, and always was, apartheid of schooling. The slow advance of state schooling in the first six decades of the century has gone into reverse. Not only has the proportion of children being privately educated risen from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, but the private schools send 88 per cent of their pupils to higher education compared with only per cent of the state school-leavers. Pupils from comprehensive schools make up less than 20 per cent of the intake to Oxford and Cambridge. The poorest group of roughly two million children live in households where the total annual income is less than the fees for one child at Harrow.

Who now speaks for the working class? Propaganda for the proletariat was, of course, always a minuscule Marxist cult. But night schools, the Workers' Educational Association and the extension movement in the universities had collectively a wider appeal to a much larger working-class minority. R.H. Tawney took tutorial classes to working men in their own community. Comprehensive schools were invented in the brave postwar days by those of us who had been enthused by the siege socialism of war.

The future, we believed, was a challenge to bring up a new generation of children fully incorporating best practice from both grammar and technical schools. Children from all classes and of all abilities would be joined together to share a common citizenship and to meet the manpower needs of a prosperous country.

However, though with exemplary success here and there, the comprehensive school movement failed. It was fatally undermined by the survival of private schooling, which automatically deprived it of middle-class political support. The privilege of the university was a free good offered by a benign state, but it could be effectively bought at a private school or by mortgage for a house in the catchment area of a surviving grammar or a successful comprehensive school.

What then are the remedies? New Labour says education, education, education. Working-class interests want this priority diverted first to ending school apartheid.

* End immediately the farce of charitable status (ie charity for the rich) attached to independent schools. Liberalism forbids their abolition, but surely there is a case for a bargain whereby private-school spending per capita comes into line with state-school spending - a level playing field. That is fairness. * Close down the quality assessment apparatus immediately and let the academics run their own show.

* Let the Open University look especially to the working class.

* Let Oxford and Cambridge set targets for admission from state schools, sending buses to the cities to encourage applications and spending money on such exercises in proportion to the numbers starting in state and private schools. There would be plebeian rejoicing (if the working class noticed) if some more distinguished Oxford or Cambridge college balanced Lincoln College's appointment of the head of Eton by electing the headmistress of an urban comprehensive to its mastership.

Finally there is, apart from fairness, the demand for efficiency in a global economy. Working-class talent has been grotesquely wasted in an educational system that has hitherto condemned the majority to failure. We can do better. The measure of our success will be that children of the working class, like women and members of ethnic minorities, enjoy and merit their university place. It will be a slow reform, but one worthy of a civilised country.

Sociologist A.H. Halsey is a professorial fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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