Leading Article: How privilege sweeps up

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The Independent Online
It was all working out nicely. On Wednesday, in Exeter, a report to the Royal Geographical Society conference announced the return of staff. In Hampstead, but in Coventry, too, maids are bed-making, cooks are dicing, butlers are coughing discreetly into their hands - all so their employers can stay late at the office or, just as likely, lounge about. Servants, we learn, first reappeared in the late Eighties; now, with the rich rather richer, that decade's treats are still there for the indulging.

Fortunately, the supply of domestics seems guaranteed. On Thursday, a new reserve of suitable labour declared itself: Britain, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed, is a world leader in adult illiteracy. Almost 50 per cent of 16- to 65-year-olds find ordinary complexities - bus timetables, instructions on a medicine bottle - almost impossible to manage. Not, perhaps, the best people to hire for the trickier household jobs, nor the most punctual, but they'd be grateful for a little polishing in the halls of the more fortunate.

A neat fit, it seemed. Modern, Darwinian Britain in action: the less able selling their labour as market theory dictates, to the more able. Then Friday threw out a doubt. It became clear that many of last year's A-level English candidates, mostly from Eton and the like, had been awarded undeservedly good grades by the Oxford and Cambridge School Examinations Board. The regulator was frank: schools' reputations, not their pupils' essays, had earned many of those As. An investigation of the board's marking in other subjects is imminent. Much of the employing class, weighted with A-levels and the university degrees they bring, could be exposed as hapless, too. We suggest plug-changing lessons for all.