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Why the 'Class Gap' Is Holding Back State School Students

17/12/2015 17:55 GMT | Updated 17/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Our improving school system still has a huge problem. There is a 'class gap' that sees state school students under-represented at the top of higher education and in the workplace. Half of the current Cabinet come from private schools. This is unrepresentative, unequal and unfair.

A new report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published today reiterates what many have known for years: our elite institutions haven't made enough progress to serve our high-achieving, low-income students. And the 'class gap' doesn't stop there: the disadvantage in higher education is perpetuated once graduates move into the job market. The statistics are well known, but it is worth repeating them: although just 7% of pupils in the UK are privately educated, they account for half of our cabinet ministers, 55% of our permanent secretaries (the most senior civil servants), 71% of senior judges, 53% of senior diplomats and 43% of newspaper columnists.

In the past decade, Harvard has doubled the number of students receiving government financial aid, typically given to families with less than £20,000 in family income, after a concerted effort to reach out to low-income students.

At Oxford, the percent of state school students hasn't budged since 2002. And today, just 14.3% of Oxford's students come from the bottom half of households by income. Whilst one in five children are on free school meals, this can be said of just one in a 100 Oxbridge graduates.

Of course, our elite universities can only do so much to correct for disadvantage that begins during the earliest years. Still, the statistics are frankly shocking. Whilst independent schools educate just 7% of students, more than 42.5% of Oxford students come from this background. The numbers don't look better when you control for achievement: state schools educate 67% of pupils receiving 3A grades and above at A level but account for just 58% of Oxford's students. The numbers look even worse when you look at individual colleges--just 42.2% and 44.3% of Christ Church and Trinity students respectively come from state school backgrounds.

We know that independent school students with similar grades were 14% more likely to be offered a place at Oxford compared to comprehensive school students. The gap is even larger when we consider the case of ethnic minority students, who were only half as likely to be offered places in particular courses even when they had similar grades. And neither should we 'blame the victim' by saying that the reason we can't meet our state school benchmarks is that first-generation, low-income, state school students tend to apply for degrees that will boost their long-term earnings: economics and management, medicine, PPE, maths and law, as opposed to the courses with the highest acceptance rates, like classics or music.

Making our best universities more accessible is only one of the many steps we need to take to create a fairer and more socially mobile society. It's not that our bright low-income students aren't working hard--in fact, research shows that state school students in Russell Group universities with the same A level grades are 50% more likely to graduate with a first class degree compared to their independent school peers.

Rather, it's the depressing fact that class and family origin continues to dictate the available opportunities. The UK is still very much a place where your circumstances at birth determine your life chances--along with the United States, we're one of the worst performers in the West. New research from the London School of Economics shows that when comparing those in the most elite professions, those whose parents were "routine" workers earn roughly £11,000 less per year--even after controlling for education, age, race, gender, and 'the London effect.' In fact, even after controlling for whether they went to Oxford or Cambridge and a private or fee-paying school, the 'class pay gap' shrinks to just £7,800.

To those at Oxford I would say: if Harvard can find talented disadvantaged youth, so can you. But more broadly to improve life chances for all we can't forget about everything that happens from early years until the transition to work, especially for those young people who don't go through the A level and higher education route. Although you wouldn't know it from the attention they attract from politicians and policy - makers, they form the majority and it vital that those routes work far better too.

We need to keep class out of our education system, we should be giving as many young people as possible the opportunity to get on in life.