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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Social mobility 'declining' in UK
David Willetts
David Willetts fears growing class inequalities
Social mobility is on the decline in Britain despite the expansion of higher education, says Tory David Willetts.

The shadow education secretary says opportunities have increased for middle-class women but not for the poorest in society.

In a speech to the National Extension College, Mr Willetts said the best way to help social mobility would be to get all primary children reading well.

He also stressed the importance of vocational training to encourage boys.

'Reversing trend'

Explaining his fears about social mobility, Mr Willetts said: "Of course it is right to widen opportunities for women, but paradoxically at the same time this has strengthened some of the forces passing on income and wealth from one generation to the next.

"Increasing equality between the sexes has meant increased inequality between social classes."

Mr Willetts identified four areas which he thought would reverse the trend.

As well as ensuring all children could read to a competent standard when they leave primary school, he stressed it was important to tackle the poor performance of boys when compared with girls.

"Boys are desperately short of powerful male role models," he said in the annual Geoffrey Hubbard Lecture.

"If we can make vocational training more worthwhile this could help boys in particular who are currently so switched off from school learning."

He argued that increased home ownership and less means-testing for families with several children staying on at school could improve social mobility.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of education charity The Sutton Trust, said research it commissioned from London School of Economics shows social mobility in the UK has "declined and is low compared to other leading countries".

He agreed with Mr Willetts that a major reason was the middle classes benefitting from increased educational opportunities.

But to the Tories' list of ways to improve the situation, he added the need for a free transport system "to make school choice more of a reality for families from poorer homes" and help to bridge the divide between private and state education.

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