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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.