An educational charity called today for a cross-party commission to examine the reasons why Britain has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the world.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said while social mobility in the UK has stabilised in recent years it is still at a very low level compared to other European countries and the US, and that the chance of a good education was key to the problem.
Children born in the UK in 1970 have less chance of escaping poverty than those born in 1958, according to the interim findings of research being carried out for the trust.
Sir Peter told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that educational opportunities are still more likely to go to well-off people, despite a decade of Labour government.
“We really have the worst of all worlds: we have got inequality of opportunity with inequality of outcome. I think we are in a really terrible position. This is too important for party politics and we need a cross-party commission to really look at this,” he said.
He also suggested a return to taxpayer-funded places for less well-off pupils at independent schools.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, said the research was “staggering” and that real improvements would come from a generation of non-selective schools such as Labour’s city academies.
Mr Cameron said: “If people aren’t achieving according to their talents and according to their potential, then it’s a huge waste for them, a huge waste for society and it’s also deeply unfair.”
He said making it easier for people to open new schools was the key to improving standards for all, alongside fostering “strong and stable families” and early years provision.
“If we spend our time just working out how to divide up a fixed number of good school places, we will never get anywhere. What we’ve got to do is increase the number of good school places.”
But he did not specify grammar schools as the solution. “Making a fixed decision at 11 between one sort of school and another is not the right answer.”
Mr Cameron said he would be prepared to work with the government on this but added that Gordon Brown would not be able to provide the changes the UK needs.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, called the Sutton Trust findings “alarming”.
“The Sutton Trust’s talk of democratising selection as a solution is, however, a dangerous sideshow. In whatever form it comes selection drives inequity. It is impossible to democratise.
“The government should ignore such siren voices. It should build on its commitments to tackle poverty at home and abroad and concentrate on developing a comprehensive programme which tackles social and educational disadvantage and gives schools in the toughest areas the support they need,” he said.
The schools minister, Andrew Adonis, is expected to touch on the subject of social mobility in a speech tonight.
In a speech at City University, he will say that the government needs to ensure that more than 80% of teenagers gain good school leaving qualifications, in order to keep up with other countries.
“The social and economic imperative of the next two decades is to… create an education system where 80% and more succeed. Currently we are just above 50%,” he is expected to say.
“But we lack a fixed view of our medium-term objective, beyond incremental year-on-year improvement in average attainment, and educationalists and politicians ambitious for significant further system improvement face deep ‘more means worse’ scepticism which has – to be frank – made them reluctant to be explicit about a future goal lest they be accused either of utopianism or ‘dumbing down’.”