British society is one of the most stratified in terms of social class. In contrast to the United States, where politicians at least pay lip-serve to the notion of a class-less society, class divisions are woven into the fabric of the nation’s social, political and economic institutions. Barring occasional rhetoric from Labour benches, Realpolitik considerations often stifle any attempts toward diminishing class privilege. This is as true with respect to our education system as it is in other opportunities for social mobility. A survey of government education policies of the last century indicates two persistent tendencies in the system. Firstly, the divisions between the ruling and working classes are maintained through entry restrictions to quality higher education. Secondly, the content of the syllabus and curricula relegates class discourse to the margins of academic thought. (Ball, 2003, p.147) For example,
“Although education has often been portrayed in terms of its positive and liberatory potential, not least within more recent widening participation and lifelong learning rhetoric, there is also a long history of sociological theorization that has been critical of the ways in which education reproduces and reinforces class inequalities. It can be argued that higher education has a particular potential for reinforcing inequalities because, by definition, it is not open to all and is non-compulsory.” (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.1)
A brief survey of published literature on the subject shows its deep-rooted class bias. Author Peter Wilby neatly sums up the situation when he says that the 20th century education system was tribalistic. Other scholars have made similar claims about the English education system: “R.H. Tawney called it ‘the hereditary curse upon English education’, Anthony Crosland ‘the strongest remaining bastion of class privilege’, Neil Kinnock ‘the very cement in the wall that divides British society’.” (Wilby, 1997, p.139) A reflection of the biased education policies of the last century is discerned from the role played by Britain’s public schools. For example,
“Over forty years after the legislation that opened secondary education to all, the public schools account for seven out of nine of the army’s top generals, twothirds of the external directors of the Bank of England, thirty-three of the thirty-nine top English judges, all the ambassadors in the fifteen most important overseas missions, seventy-eight of the Queen’s eighty-four lord lieutenants and the majority of the bishops in the Church of England. Even the bold, thrusting entrepreneurs who have become such folk heroes have failed to cast aside old money: of the two hundred richest people in Britain, thirty-five were educated at a single school, Eton. Reports of the death of the class system have been greatly exaggerated.” (Jeremy Paxman, as quoted in Wilby, 1997, p.139)
Depressing as the above set of statistics are, there is room for optimism. It is a sign of progress, though, that the precentage of Tory Mps who came from Eton reduced to 11 percent in 1990, from 25 percent in 1945. similarly, by 1990, the proportion of senior civil servants who had been privately educated had halved from what the figure was in 1960. These statistics show that coming from an aristocratic background and studying in an old school is no longer the only route to high office in the country. (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.1) Moreover, today there are a greater array of jobs on offer than these traditional ones. Britain’s gradual shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy and its participation in the neo-liberal globalization process, has meant that new opportunities are created for the working classes. While maintaining status quo is in the interest of the ruling class, members of which also dominate policy circles, emerging economic forces are redrawing education policy framework. In order to compete in the globalized economy, the UK needs to step up its efforts to increase and diversify student intakes for higher education programs. The UK government has already set its goals to widen access to higher education to 50 percent of 18-30 year-olds by the end of this year. But in order to achieve this goal students from minority groups (who are largely working class) will also have to be enrolled. (Ball, 2003, p.147) Today, while quality higher education is within the reach of middle classes, the same cannot be said of the working class groups. Hence in order for the government to meet its education goals, it has to include more students from working class families into higher education programs. While higher education used to be non-compulsory in previous eras, in the new knowledge economy, it has become mandatory.