Dominic Lawson: It's not Oxbridge's fault if state school pupils don't apply

Advocates of reverse class discrimination are not interested in education at all
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The Independent Online

I think it's called cognitive dissonance. The front page story of this weekend's Sunday Times was headlined: "Mandelson to favour poorer pupils". It revealed that the First Secretary of State was considering plans to request universities to set preferential lower entry standards for the least well-off; but the photograph accompanying this scoop was of Lord Mandelson strolling through the Corfu sand with his holiday host, Lord Rothschild. The two peers were later joined by the billionaire music mogul, David Geffen, whose super-yacht Rising Sun had moored just offshore the magnificent Rothschild family villa.

In fairness to Lord Mandelson – and this is, after all, a story about fairness – there is no intellectual inconsistency in espousing laws discriminating in favour of the poor, while enjoying the hospitality of the very rich. It just looks odd, that's all. A cynic might suggest that Mandelson knew the paparazzi were going to get a snap of him with his holiday companions, and that it would therefore be politic to leak a story presenting him as a friend of the poor, rather than just the super-rich – especially as he is at this moment standing in for Gordon Brown.

This column is not cynical: it will take Lord Mandelson's idea at face value as a genuine attempt to improve social mobility. After all, Peter Mandelson's galère of friends shows that he practices social mobility assiduously in his own life – why should he not encourage others, from the meanest of council estates, to do likewise?

Unfortunately, this is a matter about which myths have been allowed to develop. If you believe what is widely proclaimed, you would think that social mobility has declined in Britain to such an extent that we are now as ossified as Imperial China. Yet there is in fact a very significant amount of generational movement among income brackets – the accepted measure of social mobility.

For example the most recent figures available show that 62 per cent of the sons born to fathers in the lowest income quartile "escaped" into the three higher quartiles. Or, expressed from the other end of the social slide rule, only 42 per cent of the sons born in 1970 to fathers in the top income quartile retained their family's position in that top 25 per cent. So there is a considerable amount of movement up and down the social scale, at least as measured by income.

It is also widely believed that over the past decade the top universities have taken an ever-lower proportion of candidates from the bottom end of the social scale: this seems to be the view of almost everyone in the Labour Party – hence, perhaps, Peter Mandelson's latest political initiative. Again, this is not borne out by the actual figures.

Last month the Sutton Trust, a charity devoted entirely to improving social mobility through the education system, produced a report which showed that the 13 most academically selective universities took 39 per cent of their intake from independent schools 10 years ago, but now that figure has dropped to 33 per cent. It also showed that their intake from what the Sutton Trust described as "lower social classes" increased from 13 per cent to 16 per cent over the same period. So on that measurement too, social mobility is increasing, albeit slowly.

It is true that there is a considerable strand within the Labour Party which regards the presence of an independent educational sector as inherently wicked, and would like to abolish it altogether, so that Britain would become the only country other than North Korea and Cuba to lack any alternative to a state education monopoly.

Failing that, they would like to impose fixed quotas on universities, so that entries are allocated on grounds of reverse class discrimination. Those who propose such measures are not, actually, interested in education at all, except as a means to achieve a political end – and unfortunately, they have powerful allies within the teaching profession.

They might defend themselves by arguing that children with the same A-level grades from state schools as those achieved by children from the private sector will do better than the latter at top universities, and therefore admittance should rationally discriminate in their favour. Yet the most recent research from Oxford and Cambridge showed that the A- level scores of graduates between 1976 and 2002 were exactly predictive of the final degree results, regardless of whether the undergraduates had previously been privately educated or not.

As Alison Richard, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, pointed out last year: "As institutions charged with education, research and training, our purpose is not to be...engines for promoting social justice. We try to reach out for the best students regardless of background. But promoting social mobility is not our core mission, which is to provide an outstanding education within a research setting."

Dr Richard' claim that she and her colleagues strive to attract the best regardless of social background is not mere talk. The special application form for Oxford and Cambridge, which some felt "scary", has been dropped; and last year Cambridge abandoned its long-held entry requirement for a foreign language GCSE, mostly because less than half of state school pupils now study any foreign language.

Here, we reach the heart of the matter. The problem in the education system is not arrogance, still less snootiness, on the part the top universities, but a stupefying lack of academic and, yes, social ambition on the part of far too many state schools. The Sutton Trust in fact does recommend that universities be required to guarantee a certain amount of places to students of each and every state school; but as its research director, Dr Lee Elliot Major, said on the Today programme yesterday, "The problem lies with the schools; teachers at state schools are much less likely than those from independent schools to recommend that their brightest pupils apply to Oxford and Cambridge. There is a confusion between excellence and elitism in the state sector."

This is a polite way of putting it: it's very clear that the real social antipathy is not that of Oxbridge colleges towards schoolchildren from the state sector, but that of many teachers in the state sector towards Oxford and Cambridge. Perhaps some of them had tried and failed to get in themselves, and their disappointment or chippiness over this leads them to discourage their own pupils from making a similar attempt. Or perhaps they are simply unambitious on their pupils' behalf; either way, it is pathetic.

Of all counties, Kent provides the highest proportion of its state-school pupils for the top universities; but then Kent is the redoubt of the grammar-school system – the system that propelled Peter Mandelson into Oxford. Before those institutions were all but wiped out by the legislation of an earlier Labour Government, the grammar schools outclassed the independent sector in terms of their academic results: hardly surprisingly, since you would expect schools based on selection by academic ability to outperform those based on selection by parental income.

AH Halsey, a socialist who advised Tony Crosland when that Education Minister swore to "destroy every grammar school", many years later confessed with admirable objectivity: "The essential fact of 20th-century educational theory is that egalitarian policies have failed." So why does the Labour Party in the 21st-century continue to pretend that such policies can succeed? This is more than mere cognitive dissonance: it is a delusional disorder.