Leader: How to reform a society in which parentage dictates progress

A society in which birth determines destiny is not only absurdly unjust, it is economically damaging.

It is an irony of modern politics that the more the political class proclaims its commitment to social mobility, the more exclusive it seems to become. As is widely known and repeated, the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury were all educated at the same school, Eton (basic annual fees: £32,067). To this list we can add the new head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, Jo Johnson; David Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn; George Osborne’s chief economic adviser, Rupert Harrison; the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin; the Chief Whip, George Young; and Jesse Norman, one of the MPs appointed to the new No 10 policy board. And so it goes on.

Some Conservative MPs are now in open revolt against what they regard as the revival of an old boys’ network akin to the “magic circle” that delivered the Conservative leadership to Alec Douglas-Home, another Old Etonian, in 1963. Following Mr Norman’s appointment, Sarah Wollaston, the independentminded MP for Totnes, wrote: “I’m not asked for policy advice, but just in case . . . there are other schools and some of them even admit women.” David Davis, who was raised by a single mother on a council estate and whom Mr Cameron defeated in the race for the party leadership in 2005, was blunter in his advice to the Prime Minister in the Daily Telegraph: “No more Etonian advisers,” he said.

In his interview with Jason Cowley on page 22, Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton, optimistically suggests that we are living through “one of those little moments in history that won’t be repeated”. But the evidence, not just from politics, points to a more profound shift in access to the top professions. Today in Britain, social mobility is, at best, stagnating and, at worst, in decline. Independent fee-paying schools educate just 7 per cent of all pupils but the government report published by the former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn in May 2012 found that they account for 59 per cent of cabinet ministers, 35 per cent of MPs (with just 13 private schools providing 10 per cent of the total), 45 per cent of senior civil servants, 15 of the 17 Supreme Court judges and heads of division, 43 per cent of barristers and 54 per cent of leading journalists. As Michael Young prophesied in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), the illusion of “equality of opportunity” has acted to legitimise grotesque unfairness.

Any attempt to explain the fall in social mobility involves a complex disentangling of cause and correlation, but it is notable that the shift coincided with the steep rise in inequality that began under the Thatcher government. International evidence shows that the most unequal countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, have some of the highest levels. As Alan Krueger, the labour economist and chairman of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, observed in a speech in January 2012: “Children of wealthy parents already have much more access to opportunities to succeed than children of poor families.”

Education continues to be regarded as the great leveller, but too often the race is over even before children enter the classroom. In Warren Buffett’s sardonic phrase, the most privileged association of all is the “lucky sperm club”.

Reversing the rise in inequality, at a time when global forces tend in the opposite direction, is a forbidding task for any national government, but with their emphasis on “predistribution” – the allocation of income and opportunities before taxes are collected and benefits paid out – the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his advisers have recognised that progressive redistributive taxation is only part of the answer. The extension of the living wage and improved job security, more affordable childcare and better-quality housing and recreational facilities would all help to lessen the grip of a system under which children inherit their parents’ privileges or deprivations.

If governments have too often viewed education as a panacea and children as objects to be socially engineered, far more can be done to transform our state schools and universities into institutions that ameliorate, rather than perpetuate, inequality. Instead of crudely admitting pupils on the basis of exam results alone, universities should make greater use of “contextual” data, which takes into account a candidate’s social background, school, family circumstances and education. In other words, they must focus on potential, rather than measurable ability. A 2010 study by the London School of Economics found that state school pupils were 4 per cent more likely to get a first-class or 2:1 degree than their privately educated counterparts. If fee-paying schools are to justify their charitable status and the tax breaks that follow, they should, as the Labour peer and former schools ministers Andrew Adonis has argued, be required at the very least to take on responsibility for the governance and leadership of state academies, and create partnerships with and opportunities for local schools, as indeed Eton has.

A society in which birth determines destiny is not only absurdly unjust, it is economically damaging. If Britain is to compete in the “global race” of which Mr Cameron so often speaks, it cannot do so while continuing to squander the talents of so many of its people.