In today’s Observer, Will Hutton unwittingly highlights the poverty of the inequality debate in Britain. Gifted writers like him bang on about private schools the whole time rather than look at the far greater problem: inequality within the state system. He devotes a column moaning about the schools which, I suspect, will supply a good chunk of the students he’ll meet in his role as Principal of Hertford College, Oxford.
“Social apartheid,” he says: a lazy analogy, suggesting a binary divide between state and private. In fact, the truth is far worse. Britain doesn’t have a two-tier system: we have a multi-tier system where educational attainment is directly linked to parental wealth. Are you semi-poor? Then your kids can expect semi-bad results. Stinking rich? Then your state school will be one of the best around. And so it continues (see graphic, above). Private schools educate just 7pc of pupils; state schools educated 93pc. And this is where the real damage is done.
With his mind for detail and new academic links, Hutton should be perfectly positioned to move the debate on. While the US universities are at the forefront of its social debate, Britain’s great universities are nowhere to be seen. It’s tragic that places like Oxford and Cambridge contribute so little; they have many brilliant people (Will Hutton being very much one of them) but they seem stuck in this weird self-hatred thing and contribute very little to the debate. Confusing the smell of cold stone with actual research, as Alan Bennett might have put it.
For there to be ‘apartheid’, as Hutton suggests, there would have to be a stark divide between the prospects of the state- and privately-educated. Is there? We don’t know; no one has bothered to do proper research. All we see is the occasional survey obsessed with a handful of people at the very top: X per cent of chief executives went to private school, X many judges did etc. (Oh, and 48pc of Tory MPs as Hutton reminds us). This is no substitute for a proper social analysis, which Oxbridge colleges have the ability to conduct – but not, it seems, the inclination. Oh, we do care about inequality in Britain - but not enough to actually study its true nature.
When I was researching my Ch4 documentary last year, How The Rich Get Richer, I tried to fill in some of the gaps in research. I was lucky enough to work with the Centre for Social Justice, who looked at the inequality within the state system. We found that, as the above graphic shows, a near-perfect inequality relationship.
I wonder how Will Hutton would explain this graph? Does he believe that the poorest 10pc are thick, and the richest 10pc are the smartest? Or might it be that state schooling is best in the leafy areas, and worse in the council estates? And might his anger be better directed at the sink schools, which stymie the life chances of their graduates and inflict such damage on the communities that they're supposed to serve?
Opting out is the process that fuels inequality, still the hallmark of our education system. The Sutton Trust found that despite the recent improvement, children from the richer fifth of neighbourhoods are nine times more likely to go to a good university than the fifth from the poorest.
The ‘richer fifth’ means 20 per cent. Private schools educate 7pc. So surely the problem is more broader than one of the “social apartheid of private education?” Absurdly, he then points the finger at school reform:
Free schools and academies are disproportionately represented in richer areas.
Even if this were true, there are only 250 free schools (not 400, as he claims) and only 133 Academies have been around long enough to have educated people through secondary years. There are several thousand state schools in England: can the new ones really be the villains?
And then this:-
If we want a society in which the mass flourishes, then fragmenting our system into one built on autonomy, opting out and individualism – cementing inequalities – is precisely the wrong direction of travel.
So let’s take another look at the graph for the unfragmented and ‘universal’ state system which educates 93pc pupils:-
The unreformed state system rigorously sorts out the poorest with the worst results; this ought to appall any meritocrat. Yet this is what Hutton is defending.
It’s tragic that the energy of the left’s finest minds is directed at reheating well-worn clichés rather than trying to go to the source of the problem. But the left does sees trapped in an intellectual cul-de-sac at the moment. The social justice agenda really is David Cameron's for the taking.