Schools accused of widening social divide

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Many state schools are a no-go area for middle-class parents, a leading government adviser on education said yesterday.

Many state schools are a no-go area for middle-class parents, a leading government adviser on education said yesterday.

Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who is a key member of the Government's task force advising on university admissions, said children from underprivileged homes were "conspicuous by their absence'' from top- performing state schools.

He cited research from the London School of Economics which showed that only 3 per cent of pupils at the top 200 state schools for exam performance were on free school meals - the traditional indicator of poverty - compared with 17 per cent nationally. In many inner-city schools, the figure was more than 50 per cent.

"In social mobility, we have gone into reverse,'' he told a conference of the Association of Colleges in Cambridge yesterday. He used the example of two neighbouring secondary schools in Hammersmith, west London - both officially comprehensive.

One was the Phoenix School, a 740-pupil secondary he called "one of the worst performing schools in the country''. It has 104 refugee children and only one in four pupils gets five top- grade A* to C passes at GCSE.

The other, three miles away, the London Oratory, is a 1,369-pupil Roman Catholic secondary school to which the Blair family sent their eldest son Euan. It is vastly over-subscribed with 96 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grade GCSE passes. The average pupil also gets two A grade and a C grade pass at A level.

"I don't think there is one child at the Phoenix School who would dream of applying to the Oratory,'' he said, "and I don't think there is one child at the Oratory who would ever go to the Phoenix School. So, although the schools are in the same area, you have almost perfect segmentation. The net result is that we have a socially selective school system.''

Sir Peter, whose Sutton Trust charity campaigns to provide more working-class children with access to top university places, criticised the emphasis on "choice'' by the Labour and Conservative parties. Speaking to The Independent, he said: "In my school days, you just had a good local state school down the road. You didn't talk about the need for choice.'' The education system offered "a strong private sector with better resourced schools taking a disproportionately large share of teachers with the best academic qualifications''; "grammar schools which in many places have effectively become free independent schools for the middle classes'' and "the remainder of our so-called comprehensives'' with "a huge variation in social intake and performance''.

He added: "In theory, parents can choose schools but in practice schools choose parents.'' If choice was to remain the politicians' goal there would have to be a more level playing field.

"For instance, we should provide free bus travel to the best schools,'' he said. Research for the trust showed that middle-class children travelled an average of three miles to school while those from working-class neighbourhoods only travelled one. The result was that only one in 100 pupils from the poorest backgrounds attended leading universities such as Oxford and Cambridge compared with one in four from private schools. Sir Peter also questioned if top universities should necessarily pick the students they believed would get the best degrees.

"I visited the admissions offices of a number of American universities and sat in on a Harvard admissions committee hearing,'' he said. "There was one girl who was black, from inner-city Los Angeles, a single mother, at the bottom end of the Sat (intelligence test) range but top of her class and clearly outstanding in other ways. They decided to offer her a place rather than candidates who had far better academic records. When I asked if she would graduate with as good a degree as students they turned down, the committee chairman said, 'no, she won't catch up in four years - but actually we are not really concerned about that. We are looking 10 to 30 years down the line and we think she could be a mayor of a city or a senior partner in a law firm.'

"Maybe our own universities should have broader goals than just selecting candidates who they think will end up getting the best degrees.''

HOW THE SCHOOLS COMPARE

THE PHOENIX

The Phoenix, a "fresh start" schools - given a new name and new staff in an attempt to turn round a failing comprehensive - has 754 pupils, 43.6 per cent of whom have some form of special educational need.

Last year 25 per cent of GCSE pupils obtained at least five A* to C grade passes - less than half of the national average but a big improvement on three years earlier when the figure was 11 per cent.

Its head, William Atkinson, was described as "outstanding'' by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, although the school was said to have "serious weaknesses" four years ago. Mr Atkinson said inspectors did not compare "like with like". "They failed to give proper recognition to what the children can do compared with when they first came to secondary school," he said.

It has pupils from 50 nationalities speaking 47 languages; 104 are refugees, mostly from Somalia, and 14 from traveller families. More than half have free school meals. Mr Atkinson has said that other schools in Hammersmith and Fulham - such as the London Oratory - do not have a single refugee child.

LONDON ORATORY

The London Oratory is a non-selective Roman Catholic school with 1,369 pupils, of whom 96 per cent gained at least five A-star to C-grade passes at GCSE last year. Its A-level point score per candidate was the equivalent of two A-grade and a C-grade pass per pupil - placing it in the top five non-selective schools in London for its exam performance.

The school is oversubscribed with parents queuing up to get their children in. Only 7.9 per cent of its pupils are eligible for free school meals with just nine pupils at an early stage of learning the English language. In all, 10.1 per cent of its pupils have some form of special educational need.

Its headteacher, John McIntosh, is an acknowledged academic expert who has written pamphlets for several think-tanks - most prominently for the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies.

Interviews have been conducted with parents before decisions are taken on whether to admit children. It opted out of local education authority control under the Conservative government but returned to the fold when the incoming Labour government abolished opt-out status in 1997.

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