Richard Garner: Reforms have increased the gap between rich and poor

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The Independent Online

Labour must be embarrassed that 11 years in government has resulted in record numbers of parents wanting to quit state schools and seek a private education for their children.

With Tony Blair's mantra of "education, education, education" being his top three priorities, we were led to believe we were on the threshold of establishing a world-class state education service in which presumably only a fool or a snob would part with substantial sums of money to go private.

Instead, today's figures show our top universities – including most of those in the Russell Group which represents the UK's top 20 research institutions – are still way behind government benchmarks for taking in state school applicants and, in particular, those from more disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Yesterday, too, we saw figures which showed that the poorer your home background the more likely you are to be taught by a teacher not trained in the subject they are taking.

Ironically, one of the reasons for the flight to the independent sector might well be the laudable attempts by New Labour to get parents to take more of an interest in where their children go to school. Parents look at league tables, find independent schools are at the top of them and think: "That's for me if I can afford it."

This, however, has been accompanied by strict accountability measures on schools which place great credence on league table positions and have prompted some heads to flout admissions regulations in pursuit of a more middle-class intake to ensure their continuing popularity. As a result, the gap in performance between well-heeled suburban and disadvantaged schools has grown.

It is difficult to know how to counteract the trend. One idea, canvassed by CentreForum last year, might be worth trying. The liberal think-tank argued it was senseless for Gordon Brown to pursue his aim of bringing all state school funding up to the level of that in the independent sector.

Instead, the money should be spent only on children from disadvantaged homes – giving schools a pupil premium of £3,000 per year for every pupil they take. They would then be more likely to obey admissions rules. Money saved could be spent on cutting class sizes in disadvantaged schools and paying teachers a premium for working in the poorest areas.