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The Road to Equality of Opportunity for All Classes Lies Through Education not Quotas

06/10/2014 12:16 BST | Updated 05/12/2014 10:59 GMT

At first sight, the commitment that a future Labour government will investigate the social class of public sector employees sounds like the opening to a Maoist purge. However the conference speech by the shadow minister for women and equalities, Gloria de Piero, contains an interesting statistic. She tells us that out of 654 graduates joining the fast stream of the civil service only 25 have working class backgrounds. Why? It sounds like a terrible waste of talent

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Let's move across to the private sector for a moment and ask what happens there. At least to some extent the competitive nature of business acts as a regulator. Put yourself in the chair of someone recruiting for a firm of fund managers in the City of London. It is a highly competitive business and the firm's profits, and indeed your own bonus, depend on the firm outperforming the competition. How do you select? Do you worry about the background of candidates and which school they went to or do you simply ask yourself which of them will bring the most profit to the firm? Personal interest alone certainly points to the latter and, although one might say that the ability to sell is important and that middle class executives are the best people to sell to middle-class clients, I doubt if that really weighs much against the ability to do the job well. If it does in some places, Darwinian theory must mean that it will gradually cease to do so as ability outstrips class in an increasingly international business environment and those who are insfficient go to the wall. Apply the same argument to other employers whose need is that the job should be done as efficiently as possible. These days that must include most private businesses.

Having quoted her statistic, Ms de Piero suggests that the provision of opportunities for people of working class background should be led from the public sector. That may sound good at the Labour Party Conference but it is nonsense. No doubt some changes can be affected by targets and quotas but the usefulness of these pales into insignificance when compared to the influence of competition. In truth it is usually money which drives change. Why do boys only private schools open their doors to girls? Is it principle or the need to keep up numbers and fee income? Why are dress standards relaxed at public dinners where attendance is languishing? Why are church services dumbed down? Why do newspapers eschew serious news in favour of tittle tattle when readership falls? Why are football matches timed to fit television schedules?

The drivers in the public services are different but if it is really true that the civil service selects on a basis of class prejudice, a lack of social justice is the least of our problems. Why are they not just taking the best people for the job? Are we so well run already that we can afford to recruit stupid mandarins?

What then if the best candidates are actually the middle class ones? How does one deal with that? Ms de Piero is quite right when she deplores the shortage of social ladders but I fear that she wants her ladders in the wrong place. If we are to rely on the need for able employees to drive equality of opportunity, we need to ensure that all classes have the same opportunity to develop their ability. So it all goes back to schools in the end. Until the state sector provides the same level of education as the private sector, the playing field will remain tilted. Lift the quality of state sector education and it will level.

It is a sad reflection on the priorities of the British public that the political parties prefer to protect the NHS from cuts rather than protecting the education budget. After all, we must all die sometime and trying to postpone the event by climbing on the shoulders of the next-generation shows a depressing lack of concern for the future.

One way or another money has to be brought into the education sector and, if the public purse cannot stand it, it must come in from elsewhere. Schools sponsored by business, by parents, by trade unions or by private benefactors looking for knighthoods. It really doesn't matter which provided they are good. If we can really make a difference here, Ms de Piero's quizzing of the public sector will become irrelevant.