John Major is right - in education, money still buys a better chance of success

Britain has a clear and shameful lack of social mobility, and private, fee-paying schools are symbolic of the wider link between how much money your parents have and how much opportunity you’re given.

I’ve said it many times. If you want someone to attack inequality in opportunity, go to a Conservative Prime Minister. John Major, that well known class warrior, has come out with some strong words on the way the wealthy in this country keep a hold on positions of power.  

"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class," he said this weekend. "To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking."

"Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born”, he went on. “We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them.”

I think, at this point, little of what John Major said comes as news. Britain has a clear and shameful lack of social mobility. Private schools are far from the only factor in that problem, but they stick out, symbolic of the wider link in this country between how much money your parents have and how much opportunity you’re given.

Yet even this most obvious of mechanisms goes ignored; itself, it seems, symbolic of the blind eye we turn to the avenues of power that keep things as they are. When it comes to the hold of private schools on every position of advantage in this country, most of us seem locked in to some sort of selective amnesia. We know what happens. Many of us are sure it’s far from fair. Few are willing to actually come out against it. The fact that private schools are still given the tax relief saved for charities is suggestive of our collective willingness to be the butt of the public school system’s joke.

We’d be disgusted if it emerged a parent had bribed the admissions tutor at Oxford University to allow their child to attend. We are somehow meant to accept it when they buy their child an education that vastly increases their odds of being offered a place. Private school students are 55 times more likely to be given an offer for Oxbridge. Five schools send more there than 2,000 others combined. Either the working class are stupid or the people who have more money are using it to ensure their children have more chance of success.

And why wouldn’t they? Parents want the best for their child and it’s their right to do what they can to help them achieve it. Freedom is often presented in this way as limitless, as if societies give it free reign regardless of how one person’s freedom harms others. There are limits to what a parent can legitimately do to help their child succeed. If there weren’t, there would be no laws against a father stealing a laptop to make his son’s homework easier or ethical problem with a mother taking her daughter’s A-levels for her. The decision is where we want to draw the line between parental partiality and our hopes for equal opportunity. Somewhere along the way, we’ve decided private schools fall within the realms of acceptability. Power buys power. The status quo is strangely attractive, even when it’s harming most of us.

Education, at its most practical, equips children with the chance to get the best from their life. Our education system just gives some better chances than others.  If we decide that we want an economy where there are unequal rewards, the least we can do is ensure each child has a fair chance in the competition for those rewards. Maintaining the private versus state school divide is like giving one child a stick and another a sword and acting surprised when the stick snaps in two.  

Even the weapons we’ve told ourselves make the fight a bit fairer are now being bought up by the people who don’t even need the help. The Sutton Trust released a report last week that showed the wealthy and privately educated in fact have a hold on grammar schools; the supposed mechanism for the smart working class to make it to the top. More than four times as many grammar school pupils come from outside the state sector than the number entitled to free school meals. The vast majority, funnily enough, come from fee-paying prep schools.

The problem is clear. The question is whether we want to do anything about it.




Eton College, where students leave with a significant advantage. Photo: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Show Hide image

Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

For more information, visit: