27/06/2011 05:32 BST | Updated 26/08/2011 06:12 BST

Social Mobility: Who's Winning in the School-Fiddling Wars?

The anxious-parent rumour-mill where I live is grinding with a new anxiety, and it goes something like this: Middle-class parents in the know are taking their children out of the top private schools that have Junior and Senior sections, and instead sending them to smaller preparatory schools, which prepare children for the 11+ exam that allows entry to state-funded grammar schools.

Why? Because these parents are worried that their kids will be discriminated against by the quota system to be attached to Britain's publicly-funded universities, which will aim to force top institutions to take their 'share' of state-educated students. So the moneyed middle-classes are deciding to save their senior school pennies for college, and hope that their children's A* grades are viewed by admissions tutors as the result of intelligence shown against the odds at a state grammar, rather than a consequence of academic privilege bought by private education.

You could dismiss all this as a quirk of the grammar-school system, but friends in a London suburban comprehensive zone have told similar tales. There, it is rumoured that the knowing middle classes are deliberately sending their kids to the 'dumpier' schools, so as to amass the 'under-privileged' points that will count in their favour at university admission.

These children will get their A*s thanks to the network of private tutors that already operates around ambitious, well-off parents who show their approval of state schools by sending their kids to the local comp; and their disappointment by outsourcing the actual teaching to private educators in the evenings.

So much for social mobility, Coalition-Government style. Dave and Nick really should have learnt that technocratic attempts to 'even out' social inequalities through the education system always fall at the first and highest hurdle: the sharp elbows of the middle class.

The widespread move from the grammar system to comprehensive schools 40-odd years ago suffered a similar fate, with those who had the resources to do so moving to live next a good school and ensuring it stayed at the top of the heap. Over ten years ago New Labour expanded higher education with the vain aim of achieving the appearance of social equality through giving more young people degrees; the first consequence was the emergence of a distinction between 'proper' degrees from established universities, and 'Mickey Mouse' certificates from the new universities.

It doesn't seem to matter what in the way of rhetoric, carrots and sticks are thrown at the education system to force it to bring about 'social mobility', because the middle class always wins. Never having come out all that well in the elbow-wars, I could get chippy and envious about all this - but I find the speed with which individuals manage to subvert the machinations of policymakers actually quite refreshing.

It's rubbish, of course, to think that any meaningful kind of equality, or 'social mobility', can be achieved by fiddling yet more with university admissions criteria, in the hope that subjecting posh teenagers to a process of mathematical discrimination will make life better for anyone else. That policymakers have sunk this low speaks volumes about their lack of ambition and imagination about the next generation's life chances; and I don't blame parents for finding ways around these limits for their own children.

Sharp elbows won't win the argument for sensible education policy: at the very least, we need some arm-wrestling over principles. But if policymakers were able to see beyond their noses, they might notice that parents rarely fall tidily into line, especially when confronted with policies that have been tried, tested and shown to fail.

Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, and a regular contributor to spiked.