Some education policy initiatives under the leadership of Tony Blair has been constructive, there are also worrying trends. What is worrying is that class inequalities in the UK have risen during the last fifty years. The way our education system is set up had a part to play. As the old adage goes, money be-gets money. And those born into economically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to get an impoverished education, which would determine their career paths and monetary success. And the education system in the UK has been an accomplice in this vicious cycle of class privilege, which plays itself out over and again.
“The findings come in a series of studies, for a charity called the Sutton Trust, by Jo Blanden of the London School of Economics, Stephen Machin of University College London and Paul Gregg of Bristol University. They found that, on average, a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1958 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income of the rich boy’s parents. If the equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags produced a son in 1970, he would grow up to earn 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks. In other words, far from decreasing, class advantage grew as the 20th century progressed.” (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
The late 1970s and early 1980s were an important period in this respect. It was during this time that Britain joined other major economies and kick-started the process of financial globalization. The internal dynamics of the British economy underwent a key change during this period, as London assumed its new role as a key European financial hub. While the GDP figures got bolstered and the per-capita incomes of the population rose consequently, the distribution of wealth was highly skewered. Some aspects of this metamorphosing was documented by famous novelist Martin Amis in his novel Money. (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.1) Far from being a society that merits talent, the UK turned into an ever more polarized society. And the education system as well as education policies of both the Tories and the Labour parties during this time have only strengthened ruling class privilege. For example, whichever method statisticians employ to measure class, they inevitably come to the conclusion that the substantial university expansion since the 1980s has benefited the ruling class more than the working class. The gap between “the higher-education participation rates of the working and middle classes is now wider than ever. All the effort that new Labour has put into increasing the chances of the poor–all the Sure Start schemes and all Gordon Brown’s measures to redistribute wealth–have merely slowed the march of inequality.” (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
The abolishing of grammar schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s was seen as exacerbating inequalities in opportunity for education as well as social mobility. Although there is some rationale behind this move, its results have been very disappointing. One could only conclude that Conservatives’ accusation that grammar schools helped in ‘entrenching privilege’ is quite ludicrous, for the opposite is the truth. Moreover, various governments in the past have tried to coerce universities into perpetrating inequality of opportunity. Comprehensive schools too have failed to deliver on the promise. (Suárez-Orozco, 2004, p.125) For example, after the abolition of grammar schools, comprehensive schools were touted by both the Tories and the Labour M.P.s with the belief that under a veneer of equality, it would actually strengthen class privilege.
“If you combine a comprehensive state system with a selective private system–as Britain and America do–you have the rich parents’ dream. If their children are bright, they go to a good private school. Competition for places is fierce, but limited by the parents’ ability to pay. If their children are clots, their wealth can still be decisive because they can afford to move into the catchment areas of the best comprehensives. Either way, money talks, and poor but talented children are confined to the worst schools. (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
When Tony Blair ran for Prime-Minister’s office in 1997, it was under a campaign that trumpeted the need and promise of education for all demographic groups. The common buzz phrases at the time were ‘Investment in learning’, ‘standards not structures’, ‘excellence at the top’, etc. While in nominal terms some of this promise has been kept, in real terms class privilege has continued to increase. His successor Gordon Brown made no significant changes to the policy framework and so too David Cameron. It seems that class privilege in Britain is to continue unchallenged for the foreseeable future at least. (Suárez-Orozco, 2004, p.125)