Did Britain's elite all go to the same schools?

Probably, but this report doesn't prove it.

A report by the Sutton Trust for the Times (£) has been making waves due to its claim that "only ten schools produced 12 per cent of the country’s most senior businessmen, politicians, diplomats and leaders of the professions".

The breakdown varies significantly between professions. So, for example, the report claims that, of leading journalists, 25 per cent were educated at a grammar school and 52 per cent at independent schools (the rest were educated at comprehensive, secondary modern, direct grant, or other state schools, some of which may also be selective), while 37 per cent of leading politicians were independently educated and 27 per cent at grammar schools.

In some of the reporting that followed, the "leading" aspect of the report managed to fall away, making it seem like three quarters of all journalists were educated selectively. But it is also important to look at the methodology of the Sutton Trust report (pdf):

The study is based on 7637 people educated at secondary school in the UK, whose names appeared in the birthday lists of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent or The Independent on Sunday during 2011. These lists of names provided a snapshot of the country’s leading people across a range of sectors.

So the report lives or dies on how accurately the names on the birthday lists of four newspapers represent a "snapshot of the country's leading people". If there are any longstanding biases – if, for instance, journalists working online are less likely to be mentioned than journalists working in print, or if religious leaders from some religions are more likely to be mentioned than others – then that could severely reduce the usefulness of the report.

For instance, there's a very important point which nobody has made about this data set. It shows that the majority of leading journalists are independently educated – using a set of names put together by journalists. If those journalists are more likely to include people like themselves on the birthday lists – even unconsciously – then that could skew this report considerably.

Similarly, almost an eighth of the data set was cast out because schooling information was not available. Again, unless we are sure that that information being unavailable is uncorrelated with where someone went to school, a significant bias is introduced. It is reasonable to suggest, for instance, that Eton College keeps far better lists of alumni than most comprehensives do – so nearly everyone on the list who went to Eton would be included, while a number of state educated people may slip through the cracks.

None of which means that the conclusion of the report is necessarily untrue. In fact, given what else we know about the concentration of power in Britain, its broad claims are very likely to be correct. But it is an instructive example of how important methodology sections of studies like this are – and anyone quoting the actual figures ought to be aware that they need to be served with a hefty grain of salt.

Eton College. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.