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Education is key to improving UK's social mobility

There are times when I wonder if Britain is running backwards, and we are heading for the dreadful Dickensian days of the haves and the have nots.

That was an era when the rich skirted the poor as they hurried past, or dropped a coin wordlessly into their caps. Are things so different now?

Walk through any city, be it Glasgow, Belfast or London, and you'll see a tide of the unemployed, the ill and the idle, eddying aimlessly or unhappily. Those obsessed with the thought of scroungers like to focus on the work-shy, whose ability to exploit the benefits system they use as an excuse to write off all who cannot find work, or need income support, or are too unwell to hold down a job for long.

I can understand why some might prefer to look at things this way. After all, it's far less troubling to think that those at the lower end of society are struggling because they are to blame. To acknowledge that there is something rotten at the heart of society, which allows the less fortunate to slip through the cracks, is to feel obliged to make amends. The hard-hearted presumably sleep better believing there is nothing they can do to help those who refuse to help themselves.

Thank goodness not everyone is like that. I listened with fascination yesterday to a radio interview with Anthony Seldon, the influential headmaster of Wellington College, as he outlined radical proposals for redressing the UK's galloping social inequality. Although galloping is perhaps the wrong word, given that the root of the problem is a woeful lack of social mobility for those born to the least well-off. More than at any time since the advent of the welfare state, it seems, those brought up in poverty are now destined to stay there.

Seldon's ideas will have him branded as a class traitor in certain circles. He suggests public schools should offer a quarter of their places to the poorest; and that the very well-off who send their children to the best state schools ought to pay fees.

I turned the radio up. It was as if William Wilberforce or Elizabeth Fry had taken to the air waves. How refreshing to hear a member of the elite stand up for those who have no voice or champion, to listen to a visionary who has a plan for making things right. Or, at least, better.

The thought of a private school in which one in four pupils is from a low-income family is little short of revolutionary. It's a sharp corrective to the weaselly self-justification of those who send their children to state secondaries either because they cannot afford private fees or because universities offer more places to comprehensive pupils.

Whatever the reason, these parents claim the state system offers a better all-round education for life. This is true, so long as one does not want to buy into an influential old boy's network that will tide one through the rest of a gilded career. Tatler's recent guide to the best state schools - most of them in the leafiest and priciest parts of the land - is only the latest symptom of middle-class canniness disguised as liberal thinking.

Yet the example of a free school in London set up for the poor, which sent as many pupils to Oxbridge last year as did Gordonstoun, reinforces Seldon's point. Closing the social gulf and dismantling class ghettoes starts early in life. Given a really good education, those from unprivileged backgrounds will flourish. Indeed, better equipped to be self-reliant, they might even outclass their affluent peers.

Do I hear howls from a middle-class appalled that a state education might not come free? No doubt some hard-up parents are equally outraged at the thought of their offspring rubbing shoulders with the officer class.

Seldon's proposals are certainly challenging, but does anyone have a better idea? The social gap yawning under our feet is not just a threat to the economy, it is a tragedy. A shameful new kind of apartheid, it results in countless lives being wasted or destroyed. Levelling out society by offering everyone a fair chance to get on will ultimately benefit us all in ways as yet unimaginable. So where better to break down class barriers than in the classroom?

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Education

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