It is troubling to report today that so few students in professional degree courses at universities have come from our lowest-decile schools. Education has been designed to provide an equal opportunity to everyone in New Zealand, enabling those born into low-income households to overcome that disadvantage and acquire the means to make a better life for themselves.

Kirsty Johnson's report today suggests it is not happening. Just one in 100 students in elite courses, she finds, came from the lowest-income decile. Among the 16,000 students accepted into professional law, medicine or engineering courses over the past five years, 60 per cent came from the highest third of household incomes, and just 6 per cent from the lowest third. These are courses with limited entry; students need to meet a competitive standard.

Universities blame low-decile schools for failing to equip more of their pupils for higher education, school principals say universities could be doing more to encourage their pupils with scholarships and other assistance. But both sides probably know they are battling one of the oldest facts of life — that family expectations are the strongest influence on a child's prospects.

Centuries ago it was firmly expected a son would grow up to do what his father did (girls' prospects were even more limited). Neither parent nor child thought it necessary or even desirable to learn any other trade. The inherited occupation defined a person's rightful position in society and relative wealth. That class system was left firmly behind by those who choose to migrate to places such as New Zealand in the 19th century. Pioneer settlers wanted wider horizons for themselves and their children and an undeveloped country was a place of boundless opportunity.

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New Zealand has never lost that principle of equal opportunity, though our report today suggests it has become observed more in principle than in practice. Education may not be the great equaliser we like to imagine. Every child is provided with schooling from age 5 to 15, at no cost if the parents cannot afford a usually small fee. Pre-school and tertiary education is also heavily subsidised, and loans are provided on generous repayment terms.

Yet in many households, tertiary education remains a foreign concept. Parents who got a job as soon as they could, just as their parents did, do not encourage their children to do anything different. Not all, of course. Plenty of parents of modest means help their children aspire to a higher education than they had.

They may be the parents sending their child to a school in a higher-decile area, which should also be taken into account when measuring education's equalising effects.

But the more that low-decile schools lose their more highly motivated pupils, the lower the likely percentage of those remaining who go to university. It is hard to see what can, or should, be done about that. If higher educational aspiration starts with a choice of secondary, or even primary, school, should it be discouraged?

The solution lies in motivating many more children to overcome their lottery of birth and making sure they have the opportunities every child deserves.