The great paradox of British politics is that the left moan about inequality, but it’s the right who will remedy it. Ed Miliband is proposing the restoration of the old order, where the poor get the worst schools and the rich get the best (and the opportunities that flow from it). Labour plans to tax the rich more, and give money to the poor as if by way of compensation. The Tories want to revolutionise the system, so the poor have the same choice of schools that today only the rich can afford. Labour wants to make sure the unemployed are well looked-after. The Tories want to make sure the unemployed are rewarded — not penalised — if they seek work.
It may sound perverse. But it is David Cameron, an Old Etonian with a Brasenose first, who is the anti-establishment candidate and whose policies pose the greatest threat to the old, corrupt order. I look at this in my Telegraph column today. Americans coming to Britain would be amazed at the grip our private schools have over the country. They educate 7 per cent of pupils, but figures from the Sutton Trust show that they provide the following proportions of our elites:
What explains this? Part of it will be what Samir Shah calls ‘cultural cloning’, how people have a bias towards recruiting in their own image. But we must also consider another staggering aspect of the British educational system: the attainment gap between private and public, which is bigger than any country bar Qatar, Brazil and Uruguay.
This should make you angry: after six decades of the welfare state, the British rich have a far better start in life than the poor. But you can hardly blame the private schools for being so good. The only rational anger should be directed at the way state schools are failing their pupils – who will be just as bright as those with deep-pocketed parents.
But this is not the worst of it. The most shocking part of the British social mobility problem – the reason why British elites are posh and getting posher – is that we have a state school system that serves the rich best and poor worst. It is demonstrated by the following graph, I think the FT’s Chris Cook ought to win an award for producing it. I spent years trying to prove the link between poverty and bad exam results in state schools, and failed. Cook seems to have done over in a wet weekend. This is his now-famous ‘graph of doom’ and it perhaps the most scandalous fact in British public life.
Why do the poor kids do worse in exams? Is it, as Neil Kinnock might have asked, because they are thick? Or is it because the best state education goes to those whose parents can afford to live in leafier areas? Every parent who tries to get their kid into a good school knows the answer. Every atheist mother who sits church pews praying only for a school place knows the answer. Every parent in a council house dreading the day their child goes to the local sink school knows the answer. It’s sickening, a scandal that the Tories are trying to remedy with Michael Gove’s free schools (which are not coming nearly quickly enough).
For the record, I’m not in favour of bringing back grammar schools. They worked in their 1960s heyday, when they outclassed the private schools. But there are better, surer ways to promote social mobility now. Free schools are our best bet.
I conclude my Telegraph piece by saying that Cameron struggles to make this point. But he found his voice in his conference speech this week. The question is: can he keep it up? It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this will decide the next election.