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.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories