At school, as in life, it’s Them and Us

Yvonne Roberts argues that the debate about boys, and girls,
exam results hides the real educational divide.

Late summer always sees an outbreak of the so called gender wars
– at least in the media – when school exam results are published.
(Yes, this year, the boys have narrowed the girls’ lead) and we
have the now almost obligatory, “Women – It’s All Gone Too Far” and
“Save Our Boys” crop of headlines.

Like contemporary enactments of the battles between Roundheads
and Cavaliers, this has about as much to do with modern day reality
as a pike and musket in the wardrobe of the average lad. If present
trends continue, the middle class boy whose grades fell behind his
sister is still likely to be earning more and climbing higher up
the ladder of promotion 10 years hence. Unless, that is, wombs are
devised for child-bearing males.

A far more worrying and under-reported crisis lies in the
persistent apartheid that exists in education. It is this apartheid
that keeps the financially challenged, known as the working-class
in the days before Big Brother Tony Blair announced that class no
longer existed, in the badly-funded state sector and locked out
from decent income and wider opportunities.

According to a report from the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for
improved access to education, a pupil from a private school is
still 25 times more likely to gain a university place than one from
a state school. While only one in a 100 young people from a
deprived area will make it to a degree course. Very little change
then, in the 25 or more years since the introduction of the
comprehensive system.

Furthermore, partly due to the existence of student loans, 6,000
university places have not been taken up this year. That is 6,000
missed chances for young people to better themselves. The
government has set itself a goal of ensuring that half of all those
under 30 are educated to degree level by 2010. A goal that isn’t
just about social justice but also a matter of self-preservation.
Britain plc can’t afford to waste the talent. So, where are the
imaginative measures to ensure that those without the cash and,
often, the confidence, can find a way through?

Abolishing student loans, as Scotland has done, would be a
start. A central education fund from which head teachers, community
workers and social workers might grant bursaries would also help.
But also, in our brave, new private-public world, so too would more
support from the major corporations.

More firms, for instance, could provide mentors from the company
ranks to support willing teenagers through to graduation – as well
as offer hundreds of no-strings scholarships.

If Tesco can consider funding a curator of cookery for the
British Museum, why not an education treasure chest for young
school leavers? Application forms available in every

Social mobility is crippled as long as a sense of entitlement to
learning and a right to qualifications remains the domain of the
already privileged. So, forget the fake war of girls versus

As so many people involved in social care can testify, what
continues to matter most is the issue of Us and Them.

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