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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.