Rachel Johnson

The toffs fight back

You know what? There isn't a conspiracy against the middle classes in education. On the contrary, says Rachel Johnson, they've never had it so good

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If you read only the Daily Mail, you would think the Labour government was taking the middle classes, like the mountain gorillas of Uganda, to the brink of extinction. 'Middle Britain could be forgiven for feeling under siege from a government that remorselessly stakes new and higher claims on its income – while treating its children as some sort of privileged elite which must be put in its place,' boohoos a Mail leading article.

Steady on. It is true that taxes have gone up, but the value of the housing stock has risen by much more. Interest rates – at 3.75 per cent – are at a historic low. Inheritance tax is crippling, but not if you can persuade your parents to contemplate what Carmela Soprano calls 'estate planning'. If you were the firm sort of parent, you could tell your kid to pay his top-up fees himself via an interest-free student loan, and, unless you're an employer, there's no need to kick too hard against higher Nics.

Look at it this way: Berkshire lad Will Young as Pop Idol, a prime minister who went to Fettes, a prime minister's wife who invests in buy-to-let property, a deputy prime minister who claims 'we are all middle-class now', a corn-fed chicken in every pot.... The truth is that we, the Boden-clad masses, are cracking open the Pouilly Fumé in triumph, because we've won again, especially when it comes to education, education, education.

There was a sticky moment, when Bristol appeared to be turning down sheaves of applications from straight-A all-rounders from private schools (it was, but only because there were ten applicants for every place). It wasn't looking too good, either, when the Education Secretary Charles Clarke started talking about an Offtoff, someone to penalise admissions tutors who failed to offer places to candidates from 'low participation postcodes' over children with 'academic pathway parents'.

But the danger has passed. As you were, then. After an outcry from vice-chancellors that it served no one to make universities punishable for making space for the well-grounded products of independent schools (annual fee inflation in double figures) over poorly prepared applicants from the under-funded state sector (cheques for 2003 are in the post), we are not to have an Offtoff after all. Conceding the point that schools in the state-maintained sector can now no longer compete on the same footing as most private schools (the proportion of Oxbridge intake from state schools, one measure of social mobility, was higher 50 years ago than it is now), we are to have an 'Office of Fair Access' instead (which will, one suspects, primarily work to ensure that the most able students from poor households are creamed off by the 'outreach' offices of the Russell Group of 18 top universities, whereas in the past they would automatically have sought enrolment at, say, the University of East London, or somewhere new and unfashionable. In other words, the access row has boiled down to giving working-class students an incentive to attend elite universities).

And guess who's going to Oxford and Cambridge come October? A bumper crop of 76 clever, high-achieving boys from Eton, something of a recent record and way above the average of between 50 and 65. Headmaster Tony Little has told parents that, on the evidence of this showing, it would be hard to present the case that Etonians are in any way 'disadvantaged by admissions procedures', an opinion also voiced by the headmaster of Harrow, who is sending some 28 Harrovians 'up' this October. At Westminster, 79 leavers out of 164 got into Oxbridge; at St Paul's, 56 out of the 83 who applied got in or had offers (compared with 44 in 2001). On the Bristol front, Little went on to say that there was no evidence that Bristol was 'forbidden territory' to Etonians.

Indeed, one reluctantly has to begin to wonder whether the whole access/Bristol row was to some extent got up by the Mail and a few canny independent school heads. This axis of influence has lobbied brilliantly for the interests of parents with children in private schools, part of the upper-crust gratin of the 10 per cent of taxpayers who provide 53 per cent of the UK's income-tax revenues. Barry Taylor, of Bristol University, shares my suspicions. 'Why pick on Bristol? Usually we're knocked from pillar to post by the state sector, complaining we take all our kids from Eton! The whole row has been insane, and we've never varied our position throughout, which is that our sole interest is in recruiting students who will thrive at Bristol.' For the record, the state