Leading Article: Still room at the top

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The Independent Online
IN THE bad old days when Britain had a rigid class structure and a more selective educational system, it was reasonable to suppose that there were large reserves of intellectual talent among manual workers. After the Second World War, successive governments made it their business to tap these reserves by opening the doors of opportunity to the bright and ambitious offspring of working- class families. Student grants, educational reforms and other inducements were offered to correct the bias. One reason for change was the social transformation wrought by the war itself. Another was the gradual acknowledgment of a link between educational attainment and national prosperity.

It would be natural to assume that all those decades of effort had produced a marked increase in the proportion of working-class students at institutions of higher education. In fact, something rather different has happened, according to a report by Professor A H Halsey, published on Tuesday by the National Commission on Education. The number of students in higher education has roughly quadrupled since 1963 to reach more than a million today; and whereas only 3 per cent of 18-year-olds went into higher education before the war, the figure is now more than 20 per cent. Standards have gone up, too, meeting the objections of those who feared that more meant worse, and confirming that there were indeed reserves of untapped talent. But the proportion of those entering higher education from manual- working families seems scarcely to have shifted, at any rate since 1974, although manual workers make up a diminishing proportion of the workforce. This seems to indicate that barriers to social mobility persist.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Children of working-class families often enjoy less intellectual stimulus and weaker parental support for educational ambition than those of professional families. They must make a special effort to break out of their background, whereas clever middle-class children usually have to defy their parents if they want to avoid a university education.

The incentive for working-class children to make the necessary effort may now diminish as reliance on student loans increases. Further discouragement will come from rising graduate unemployment. But the answer is not to support working-class children with larger grants. The system still enables any child with the necessary ability and ambition to move into higher education. Family background has become less restricting with the opening of wider horizons through television and contact with a broader range of pupils in comprehensive schools. Nor is anyone without access to information on which to base a choice.

It is unrealistic to assume that the reserves of academic ability among manual workers are unlimited. At some point a mobile society begins to shake itself out as its members find their levels. There will always be individuals moving up and down, and it is important that they should be able to do so, but the time for corrective social engineering is past. Working-class children no longer need special allocations of government money to reach university. Those with ability and drive will find their way on their own.