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Cameron shocked at private school grip on top jobs!?

Cameron’s admission he must ‘do far more’ to increase social mobility is surely a prize irony, even by his standards. His close friend Gove’s obsessive drive to promote free schools and ‘converter’ academies must be one of the prime engines for embedding social immobility for the next generation, because they will reinforce social segregation. Whilst Labour’s academies had fewer disadvantaged pupils than the schools they replaced (the generally accepted proxy for disadvantage being a much lower percentage of free school meals, FSM, children), this process has been taken a great deal further by Gove’s ‘converter’ schools which now operate quite separately from local authorities.

As a consequence, for Cameron to say he is shocked that social mobility is stagnant or even becoming even more entrenched is pure hypocrisy when his own government’s policies will make the prospects for social mobility worse, and are even designed to do so. This is arguably the most privilege-ridden UK government since the war three-quarters of a century ago, and by layering further social selection on top of existing deep inequality, the result must be, and is intended to be, a more class-differentiated society.

So what will Labour do to reverse this? The first signs of a new policy – allowing free schools to continue and ‘putting rocket motors’ under academies as a mechanism for innovation – are not encouraging. Educational selectivity – whether by wealth at private independent schools or at faith-based, foundation, grammar and academy schools or at city technology colleges – has been shown over and over again by research to reinforce class divisions in society.

If anyone is serious, as Cameron pretends to be, about social mobility and genuinely equal opportunity for all, social selection under the guise of improving standards will produce the opposite effect. Contrary to the widely held myth offer a unique avenue for upward mobility for the poorest children, only 2.7% of their pupils are FSM children, compared with 13% of their entrants who come from fee-paying schools.

Milburn, Cameron’s social mobility adviser, has offered some useful suggestions – more expenditure on childcare than on tax credits, more help with parenting (not abolishing Sure Start as the Tories have done), giving incentives to the best teachers to move to the worst schools, prioritising vocational education, and ending unpaid internships. But all this is dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause.

The fundamental cause is social selection throughout English education, and that will only be ended by phasing out grammar and faith schools and limiting university access in the case of the private independent schools to the same proportion that they number in the population as a whole. Nor is this such an extraordinarily radical proposal as many suppose: Finland and S. Korea regularly feature at the top of the global educational standards league and neither has any form of selective education.

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