Why the gap between the learns and the learn-nots is wider than ever

That some will jeer from the back seat of the bus, while others jump for joy on the front pages, appears to be determined from the very start

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The Independent Online

It is at this time of the summer, the air humming with examination results and The Daily Telegraph aflame with pictures of attractive young women performing the very difficult art of synchro-jumping, that I always recall an incident some years ago on a bus into central Norwich. From a position half-way along the aisle I became dimly aware that the back seats had been colonised by a gang of girls from one of the local comprehensive schools. These were tough girls, of the kind who swear at one another in raucous voices and are always on the look-out for other girls, less raucous and less tough, with whom they can have a little fun.

Their chance came half a mile along the road when the bus stopped outside the local girls' independent school. On crept three or four demure 13-year-olds who sensibly opted to confine themselves to the seats at the front, as far away as possible from the salvo of insults that now began to whistle over their mute and timorous heads. "'Ere, Tabitha! 'Ere, Jemima!" (it seems scarcely necessary to add that these names had been chosen for their symbolic properties). "Why don't you come and sit with us, you ****ing ****," etc etc. Another quarter of a mile down the road and I rose self-consciously to my feet and told the anti-Tabitha faction that it could do us all a favour by piping down. After which there was a horrible, embarrassed silences until it was time for us all to get off.

My sympathies, naturally, were with Tabitha and co, on the grounds that girls sitting on buses are entitled not to have insults yelled at them. But thinking the matter over, I began to appreciate the point that their disparagers were trying to make. As I say, these were tough girls, of the type who don't care so very much for GCSE results and Ucas points, and are dimly aware not so much that the system has let them down but that their temperaments and abilities debar them from nearly everything that the system had to offer in the first place. By extension, Tabitha and Jemima were, like their assumed names, merely symbols of a process from which the insult-flingers were excluded, and in sniping at them from the back seat they were simply getting their retaliation in first.

It goes without saying that the workings of the English educational system are confused and undermined by half-a-dozen procedural difficulties. One of them is that is that nobody, certainly no education minister, has ever sat down to establish what 21st-century education is "for", whether it is there to develop the talents of the individual child, steer appropriately qualified worker ants into the jobs market, or something else altogether.

Another is that in Michael Gove we possess a reforming Secretary of State who means well – heresy to say this in progressive circles, but nevertheless I am saying it – but rushes at his impediments like a bull at a gate. But a third – perhaps the most salient of all – is that of the "equality of opportunity" supposedly available to each succeeding cohort of five-year-olds streaming through the primary school gate there is hardly any sign at all.

But then, how could there be? We live in a free society, where, provided we have the resources, we can educate our children as we like. Never mind private education, grammar schools, home-tutoring, bought GCSEs, middle-class entitlement and all the other factors which combine to ensure that the playing field is tilted at a prodigiously anti-egalitarian angle; the cards in the state primary school I attended in the late 1960s had been shuffled and dealt even before that, for the disquieting yet inevitable reason that some children could read when they arrived there and others could not.

A deep-dyed educational egalitarian would doubtless suggest that this was hugely regrettable, to which one might reply that it would be a very odd parent who didn't want his or her children to read as rapidly as possible and glory in the accomplishment once it was proven.

Any objective assessment of the way in which children receive an education in the UK has, consequently, to begin with an acknowledgement that it is fundamentally unfair to perhaps a quarter of the pupils involved in it. But in the circumstances, it could hardly be anything else. Certainly there are certain western democracies who have made a success out of equal-opportunity all-in state education, but they tend to be countries in which social distinctions, however flagrant in the world outside, have never been allowed into the classroom.

To say that it is all the fault of the private sector, as a certain kind of left-liberal flat-earther continues obstinately to insist, is irrelevant. The private schools are not going to go away, and occasional vague attempts to reign in their influence through positive discrimination are horribly unfair to the children involved. If the criterion for success is academic ability, the prize goes to the child with top marks, whether he comes from Eton or Grimepit Colliery Comprehensive.

And so we are left with a state education system which, if it wishes to prosper, is forced to follow the template of a private school system from which it is theoretically supposed to be distinct. Ask the average left-wing educator what his or her solution might be to the hulking inequalities that assist the rise of Tabitha and Jemima to the front page of The Daily Telegraph, while confining Charleen and Jade to petty abuse and they generally come up with something called the "community school", a slightly more enlightened version of the US high school, with mixed-ability teaching and no opt-outs.

Even if such a principle could be enforced, one can just imagine the way in which the wire-pulling middle-classes would make the scheme work to their children's advantage, and who can blame them?

The only way in which we can deal with the loaded dice flung down each year onto the green baize of the educational table is to acknowledge that they exist and do our best to ameliorate the worst of their excesses. On the other hand, this process will take time, and you imagine that Jade, Charleen and the other Furies of the school bus back seat are already beyond its reach.