Middle-class kids rule, OK

Brains and effort have replaced old class ties, says a new study. But Yvette Cooper is not convinced that we are a meritocracy yet
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The Independent Online
Middle classes of the world feel smug, you have nothing to lose but your guilt. A new pamphlet for the Institute of Economic Affairs proclaims that the classless Britain has arrived. According to Professor Peter Saunders, of the University of Sussex, we in our middle-class jobs and middle-class lives can feel proud of our achievements. For they had little to do with our parents, little to do with the schools we went to, and everything to do with our natural brilliance. Meritocracy rules, OK!

Peter Saunders' research deserves serious attention. For a start, his views will doubtless seep into the consciousness of policy wonks and decision- makers across the land, writing as he does under the auspices of the influential IEA. But more important, his arguments are not quickly dismissed. Saunders has a sophisticated case to make, for he admits middle-class children still get better jobs and salaries than working-class kids. Meritocracy, he believes, moves in mysterious ways.

The professor has a lot of mysteries to explain. The evidence of persistent class privilege is everywhere. Seventy per cent of the Cabinet were privately educated, as was almost every one of our top Law Lords. Oxford and Cambridge - the universities that guarantee entry into the British elite - still take around half of their students from private schools. Yet 93 per cent of children are educated in the state system.

The children of the middle classes are still a remarkable three times more likely to get a professional job than working-class children. And as the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated recently, if your father's earnings fell into the bottom 25 per cent of the working population, there is a 34 per cent chance that yours will too.

But faced with such alarming evidence, Professor Saunders doesn't flinch. Of course the children of the middle classes get better jobs, he replies, they have better qualifications, and are more intelligent. According to Saunders: ability begets success; genes beget ability; and parents beget genes. So if your parents are the intelligent members of the middle classes, you supposedly stand a good chance of inheriting their talent and making your own way up the career ladder in your turn.

Feeling uneasy at such determinism? Unfortunately, we cannot reject Professor Saunders' thesis just because it makes us uncomfortable. But, don't despair: his own research does not justify his conclusions.

First, he claims to show that ability matters far, far more than class in determining how successful you are. The trouble is he measures "ability" by the test results of 11-year-olds. Yet as every parent knows, parental encouragement and stimulation can make the world of difference to a child's pre-pubescent achievement. Moreover, even supposing that we let Professor Saunders get away with his assessment of natural ability, he still has a lot of explaining to do.

Even on his own research, 11-year-olds with identical test results still do better in life if they have middle-class, rather than working-class, parents. The academics Gordon Marshall and Adam Swift provided further evidence of the same point in an early edition of Prospect magazine. They found that teenagers from working-class backgrounds with no qualifications have only a 7 per cent chance of getting a white-collar job. But the children of the middle classes who also lack any qualifications, have a 23 per cent chance of getting middle-class work. This is hardly a sign of a mature meritocracy.

Even this shocking evidence doesn't daunt Professor Saunders. You see, he believes the middle classes are not just more intelligent, they also work harder. When Professor Saunders examined how committed children were to school and to academic achievement, he found that the kids who were determined and worked hard did better later on in life. And surprise, surprise, the middle classes tend to be more motivated than their working- class peers.

For Professor Saunders, this is proof we live in a classless society. He argues that meritocracies reward brains and effort; the brainy and the hard-working succeed; therefore Britain is a meritocracy; therefore the class system has collapsed.

But this is nonsense. The middle classes may have found a more "meritocratic" way to pass on their advantages to their children, but they are passing on privilege through the family nevertheless. It comes as no surprise to discover that middle-class children are better motivated at school than their working-class counterparts. The middle classes have been quick to cotton on to the fact that networks of contacts and a little inherited wealth are no longer sufficient to ensure that their children enjoy the same standard of living as they do. A good education and qualifications are far more effective at ensuring future success.

It seems entirely plausible, then, that the highly educated middle classes are more efficient at drumming academic motivation into their children (both at home and in fee-paying schools) than the working-classes. Professor Saunders may think that isn't a problem. The rest of us who care about social justice wonder how we can motivate working-class kids too.

The workplace may be more "meritocratic" (awarding jobs and high wages to the intelligent and hard-working), but that doesn't mean that Britain is now classless. Unless Professor Saunders believes that effort, as well as intelligence, is biologically bequeathed from father to son, mother to daughter, he cannot justify the claim that the playing field is level.

It's a shame that Professor Saunders overstates his case. If he confined himself to pointing out how important academic achievement is as a way to overcome class barriers, his research would be welcome.

The trouble is that Saunders wants us to believe we live in a meritocracy, so we will each take individual responsibility for our own failure or success - he thinks that will make us work harder. That's all very well, but it ducks our social responsibility to fight against the class-based advantages and disadvantages that really exist.

'Unequal But Fair? A Study of Class Barriers in Britain' by Peter Saunders (IEA, pounds 7).