Class divisions in the UK are just as wide as they were 30 years ago, according to new research published today.
They are so stark, according to the report, that a three-year-old child from a poor home who shines in tests is likely to be overtaken by a low-performing child from a rich background by the age of seven.
The report by the Sutton Trust, the education charity set up by Sir Peter Lampl, says social mobility in the UK remains at the low level set in 1970 when the country was bottom of an international league table. Only the United States amongst Western democracies is on a par with the UK.
It adds that children born today face "stark inequalities", with 44 per cent of young people from the richest fifth of the population going on to university, compared with only 10 per cent of those from the fifth of the population living in the poorest households. It also says that the expansion of higher education has almost exclusively been achieved by increasing the number of well-off students from middle-class or rich families going to university.
Indeed, the proportion of children from the poorest-income homes dropped from 11 per cent to 10 per cent between the early 1990s and 2002 while those from the richest groups rose by four percentage points.
Sir Peter described the report's findings as "shameful" and called for an independent inquiry into how to break down class barriers. "It is appalling that young people's life chances are still so tied to the fortunes of their parents and that this situation has not improved over the past three decades." Social mobility in the UK fell sharply between 1958 and 1970, according to the report, and has stagnated ever since.
Dr Jo Blanden, who wrote the report, said: "It appears that changes in social mobility may well have flattened out. However, at the same time, they have not reversed nor started to improve."
In his 10-year children's development plan published on Tuesday, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State at the newly created Department for Children, Schools and Families, set as a goal reducing the gap in educational achievement for disadvantaged children by boosting nursery provision for children from hard-up families.
Moves will also include setting a target that 90 per cent of youngsters should be able to read, write and add up properly by the time they leave primary school. At present, one in five mostly from disadvantaged homes cannot.
Meanwhile, the number of black students applying to Oxford University has soared this year, according to figures released yesterday. In all, 13,639 candidates applied an increase of 8.1 per cent on 2006. The number of black applicants, however, rose by 19 per cent with acceptances going up by 21 per cent.