Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Social mobility disappeared along with selective schools

"Comprehensives" were supposed to bring equality. They did the opposite

It's a puzzle how Gordon Brown manages to maintain the aura of a serious intellectual. He clearly reads widely. But so, too, do my nephews, albeit books with shorter words. The problem lies not with his ability to read but to draw the correct conclusions. His speech yesterday on social mobility is a case in point - a weird mix of platitudes and outright nonsense. Parents should want their children to do better than they did themselves. Wow. What an insight. And this "cannot be achieved without people themselves adopting the work ethic, the learning ethic and aiming high... We must set a national priority to aggressively and relentlessly develop the potential of the British people." It's difficult to imagine a priority aggressively and relentlessly to hold back the potential of the British people.

The difficulties start when he talks in more than platitudes. Yesterday's speech was predicated on the notion that, while he had been fortunate to be "a child of the first great wave of postwar social mobility", there was then a "lost generation" of "Thatcher's children" who were denied the chance to progress. Mr Brown is right to talk about the reversal in social mobility that took place in the last century. But he is about as far from the truth as it is possible to imagine in describing its cause. Margaret Thatcher did not create the problem; she inherited it.

A 1996 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed what strikes most people instinctively: education is the great engine of social mobility. "There is a clear correlation between high mobility up the income distribution and a high level of educational attainment. Non-movers are almost five times as likely to have no qualifications as big movers; at the other end of the scale, big movers are more than seven times as likely to have A levels or better than non-movers are." And with the educational opportunities laid out in Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act, which enshrined the tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools, increasingly it was no longer true that where you were born on the social scale determined where you ended up.

As Churchill said to the boys of his alma mater, Harrow School, in 1940: "When this war is won... it must be one of our aims to establish a state of society when the advantages and privileges which have hitherto been enjoyed by the few shall be more widely shared by the many, and by the youth of the nation as a whole."

And this started to happen: the proportion of public-school-educated undergraduates at Oxford was, for instance, on a steady downward path after the Second World War. In 1946 65 per cent of male students were from independent schools. By 1967 only 53 per cent of male students were from public schools. The pattern was even clearer with women, the share falling from 57 per cent of arts undergraduates in 1946 to 39 per cent in 1967. For all the problems with technical and secondary modern schools, grammar schools did a fine job of lifting children out of poverty and into opportunity. Yet today, our comprehensive system has one of the worst rankings in the developed world.

Education was seen by the advocates of comprehensive schools "as a serious alternative to nationalisation in promoting a more just and efficient society" (as Tony Crosland, who would not rest until he had "destroyed every f***ing grammar school", put it). But this was Grade A drivel. Class divisions were made worse, not better. Now those who can afford to do so leave the state system for private education or move to a middle-class catchment area. The rest are stuck with what they are served up. As A.H.Halsey, an adviser to Crosland and one of the leading egalitarian theorists of the 1960s, put it: "The essential fact of 20th-century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed."

The speed of the process was astonishing. In the late 1960s the state grammar schools and quasi-state direct grant schools easily outclassed the independent sector in terms of academic output. The next decade saw both these meritocratic pillars of the state school system collapse. In 1971 35 per cent of all state schools were comprehensive; in 1981 the figure was 90 per cent, and almost all the direct grant schools had joined the private sector. In destroying the direct grant schools on the altar of equal opportunity, the 1974-79 Labour Government succeeded only in denying opportunity to many poor children.

Mr Brown is right to emphasise the imperative of social mobility. But until he stops speaking in platitudes and starts understanding what has gone wrong, he will never be able to put anything right.


Green driving

British humorist and motoring writer Jeremy Clarkson tells us how

It's no good. I can't sit here any more pretending that there's nothing wrong. Because there is. A man came to my house yesterday to fix the computer and he had a worried look on his face. He lives 20 miles away. The fuel tank in his little van was perilously close to empty and he simply didn't have enough money to fill it up again.

In the past I only ever stopped for fuel when the yellow light had been on for a month and the engine was starting to cough. Yesterday I stopped at a garage simply because its petrol was 4p cheaper than usual. That's a œ2.80 difference per tankful. Which works out at œ300 a year. That's 55 free packets of cigarettes.

Except of course these calculations are meaningless because oil, as I write, is $139 a barrel and no one thinks it's going to stop there. Not with Mr Patel on the economic warpath and Johnny Chinaman part-exchanging his rickshaw for a shiny new Toyota. They say it'll be $150 a barrel by the end of summer.

Global warming was never going to get people out of their big cars because we could see it was all a load of left-wing tosh. But when petrol is œ3 a litre - and anyone old enough to remember 1973 would not discount that as a possibility - you'd have to be a bit bonkers to drive around like your hair's on fire in a car that does only eight miles to the gallon.

Oh it's all very well now. You may be a footballer or a Sir Alan. You may see expensive petrol as a jolly good way of getting the poor and the weak off the roads. Soon, though, you will be hit too.

Think about it. When you have to have a fist fight with an old lady over the last loaf of bread in the shop, and your electricity bill looks as though it's been written in liras, you are going to find yourself in the same boat as my computer man: with a nice car on the drive and no wherewithal to make it go.

Of course there are lots of things you can do to lessen the impact of spiralling fuel bills - all of which are dreary.

Weight is one issue. If you remove that rolled-up old carpet from your boot, you'll be surprised at the impact it'll have on your bills. You could go further and remove your spare wheel and jack too. Maybe you could even go on that diet you've been promising yourself.

Then there's all the equipment. If you use a lot of electrical stuff while driving, the alternator will need to work harder, which means more fuel. Even Terry Wogan needs a bit of petrol. Your heated rear window needs an alarming amount. And air-conditioning? Turn that off and your fuel consumption will improve by as much as 12%.

Making sure that your tyres are inflated properly will save another 5%, and you know the roof bars? If you can manage without, there's another 3% saving right there. At this rate you are well on your way to turning your Range Rover Sport Nutter Bastard into something with the thirst of a newborn wren.

By far the biggest savings will come if you change the way you drive, though. Take the Audi A8 diesel as an example. Officially it will do 30.1mpg. Realistically it'll be nearer 25. With a bit of care, however, you can do 40. Maybe more.

Audi says that its big V8 oil-burner can go 580 miles between trips to the pumps but I managed to get all the way from London to Edinburgh and then back again on a single tankful. That's a whopping 800 miles. It wasn't much fun, at a fairly constant 56mph, with no radio, no air-con and no sat nav. But the savings were massive.

Things I learnt? On a downhill stretch, ease up on the throttle pedal and work with gravity to build up speed. Similarly you can ease off the power and use momentum to get you up the next hill. A cruise control system will not do this. It is a sledgehammer when what you need is the scalpel sensitivity of your right foot.

Look far ahead. If you think you will have to slow down, start the process early. If you use the brakes you are simply wasting the fuel you used to reach a speed that was unnecessary.

Already I'm bored with this. The notion that you have to drive at 56mph, with sweaty armpits, stopping every five seconds to check your tyre pressures, just to save a pound fills me with horror and dread. It would be like being told to lose weight by your doctor - and sawing your arm off. Effective but annoying. Which is why, when it comes to the price of fuel, I want to have my cake and eat it too. And then I want second helpings.

This brings me to the Mercedes-Benz SL 350. Ordinarily I'd dismiss this, the baby of the range, and suggest you bought the mountainous twin-turbo 6 litre V12 version instead. But in these dark and difficult times, I thought I'd give the weedomatic version a chance.

The fact of the matter is this. Officially the V12 version will return 18.7mpg whereas the 350 will do 28.5. That is a colossal difference. And handy too. On my old SL 55, a quarter of a tank would not get me from London to my house in the Cotswolds. A quarter of a tank in the 350 gets me there and back.


IVF safe

Women who want to postpone motherhood to establish a career or find the right partner have been given new hope by research that shows the safety of an advanced egg-freezing technique. The most exhaustive study yet of children born after the freezing procedure found that they appeared to be as healthy as those conceived normally or by IVF, paving the way for its widespread use.

Specialists said that the research, into a method known as vitrification, promises to lift the main barrier to routine egg freezing. While dozens of British women have already done this to preserve their fertility, medical groups had advised against it outside clinical trials because of limited evidence of its safety. The study, led by Ri-Cheng Chian, of McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, assessed the outcomes of 200 children born from vitrified eggs. It found that the rate of birth defects was 2.5 per cent, which is comparable to natural pregnancies and IVF.

Dr Chian told The Times: "I have two daughters. If they wanted to preserve their fertility because they were 35 and not married, I would say, yes, they should use this technique. Even if they were 20 or 25 and wanted to use it for social reasons, I would recommend going ahead. We cannot yet say it is 100 per cent safe, but we are starting to amass good evidence that it is not risky so far as we can tell. "The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says egg freezing for social reasons should happen only in clinical trials, because there isn't enough information yet, but I think that is soon going to have to change."

Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, which offers egg freezing in Britain, said: "This is the sort of evidence we have all been seeking. I think in time it will come to be seen as positively perverse to refuse to allow women to have the chance to establish pregnancies with their own frozen eggs." She said that frozen eggs stored when women were in their twenties or thirties might eventually be shown to reduce the rate of birth abnormalities beyond that seen in the McGill study, which is published in the journal Reproductive Biomedicine Online. Such defects become more of a risk when older women conceive with their own fresh eggs.

Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said that the society did not have a firm policy on egg freezing for social reasons. "A single study isn't enough, but if more data like this emerges we would be more relaxed about it," he said.

While it has long been possible to freeze sperm and embryos for use in fertility treatment years later, it has taken much longer to achieve this routinely for eggs. The prospects of wider use have recently been enhanced by the development of vitrification, which involves flash-freezing eggs after special preparation. Up to 95 per cent of vitrified eggs survive the thawing process, compared with 50 to 60 per cent of those preserved by older slow-freezing techniques. Pregnancy rates for vitrification can be as good as for IVF with fresh eggs.

These advances may encourage more women to freeze eggs as a way of preserving their fertility, which starts to decline steeply when from the mid-thirties. Several British clinics offer women in their twenties and thirties the option of storing their eggs, and more than 100 have done so.


Railways inadequate in the home of railways: "Passengers face acute overcrowding on key railway routes because capacity will be exhausted many years before any new lines could be built, according to Network Rail. The infrastructure company is to commission a study into the costs and benefits of new lines on five inter-city routes. But it admitted that a high-speed network was unlikely to be built soon because of funding constraints and environmental concerns. The company is expected to focus on a few short stretches of track operating at conventional speed to relieve the worst pinch points on long-distance routes, including London to Peterborough, Rugby and Swindon. Iain Coucher, the chief executive of Network Rail, said that the Government's plan for expanding rail capacity by 22.5 per cent by 2014 would be inadequate on some routes, which are growing by 10 per cent a year. He said: "Clearly some routes will grow more than that and there may be a problem. The most congested parts of the network are about 80 miles out of London. People used to be prepared to travel for 45 minutes and now it's an hour and a quarter." The high cost of housing in London and fuel prices were two of the factors contributing to the continuing strong growth in demand for rail travel."

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