None of them work. The elaborate schemes supposed to widen access to the UK's top universities – the summer schools, the mentoring programmes, the taster days, the bursaries and scholarships – have failed. The proportion of poor students these universities accept has fallen over the past 15 years.
A new report by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) shows that intelligent children from the richest 20% of homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%. In the mid-1990s they were six times more likely. The better the college, the worse the figures become. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes the figures for individual universities. I've just been through the spreadsheets. In 2002-3, when the data begins, 5.4% of students at Cambridge and 5.8% at Oxford came from "low participation neighbourhoods". By 2008-9, the proportion had fallen to 3.7% and 2.7%. This has happened despite 13 years of a Labour government that listed its priorities as "education, education, education", and tens of millions spent – particularly by Oxford and Cambridge – on outreach and encouragement.
People of my social background (upper middle class, public school) dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships – most importantly through our attendance at the top universities – we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, showed that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools. Even the beneficiaries should be able to see that this system is grotesque, invidious and socially destructive.
Children from privileged homes begin to creep ahead of their peers long before school begins: the link between background and attainment, Offa says, is evident at 22 months. But schooling widens the gap. By the time they sit GCSEs, the children of higher professionals are nearly three times as likely to get five good grades as the children of people in routine work. Fewer working-class children take A-levels, and those who do get lower scores. Pupils at private schools account for some 15% of entries but take around 30% of A grades.
But this isn't just about grades. Even when children from poorer homes do well, they are less likely to apply to the top universities. Going by grades alone, there's a shortfall of some 4,500 state sector pupils who should, all else being equal, enrol on the UK's top courses. These students aren't applying partly because their schools don't encourage them to do so; partly because they feel that the top universities aren't for the likes of them.
Private schools, by comparison, groom their pupils for Oxford and Cambridge. They pass from the quadrangles of Eton to the quadrangles of Oxford with a sense of entitlement. (Many of them spend the rest of their lives nannied in quadrangles, at the bar and the Palace of Westminster. They then instruct everyone else to stand on their own two feet).