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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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