Old school tie lives on

Observations on inequality

More than half (54 per cent) of Britain's most influential journalists - editors, columnists, presenters - come from the seven per cent of the population who attended fee-charging schools, according to a report by the Sutton Trust.

So do a third of MPs, rising to four out of ten if you mean those in the highest positions, including both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. So do seven out of ten barristers in top chambers. Britain is still governed by a hereditary ruling elite.

One third of the most influential journalists who have degrees, obtained those degrees at Oxford. This, too, mirrors the picture in politics. Since 1945, seven out of 10 prime ministers have been Oxford graduates, and the other three had no degrees. (Churchill, Callaghan and Major, since you ask.)

It gets worse. Twenty years ago the products of fee-charging schools were marginally less dominant in journalism than they are now. In other words, we are travelling in the wrong direction.

How can this be happening under a Labour government? And can we reverse it? We can. But only if we break conclusively with the educational dogma of Tony Blair and Lord Andrew Adonis. Here the Sutton Trust report starts to fail us.

The Sutton Trust was set up by the immensely rich Sir Peter Lampl, who has an honest desire to reduce educational inequality. But Sir Peter became enmeshed in the Blair/Adonis educational project, and he says: "Part of the wider solution is to open up independent day schools to all talented youngsters, not just those whose families can afford the fees."

This is the one bit of Tory education policy which the Blair government jettisoned. It was called the assisted places scheme. It meant that the fee-charging schools could select the best and most promising from less well-off families, thus removing a layer of talent from state schools and relieving the pressure to make state schools better.

Most of the Blair "reforms" have made it easier for those from wealthy families to outstrip those from poor families. The school system has been picked up and shaken so often it no longer knows what is approved of and what is outmoded, old Labour dogma. The system is so complicated only better-educated parents can navigate their way round it.

Most of the changes have been designed to give more schools a chance to select their intake, and to give companies more power over schools. When you select, you select out the poor. A few of those you pick may make it to the top of a profession and rub shoulders with the products of fee-charging schools. Some whom you reject may end up at fee-paying schools, their parents beggaring themselves to pay the fees.

University tuition charges have proved a real disincentive to the less well off. A poor teenager faces a more daunting prospect than a rich one. And once you've jumped that hurdle, you have to find a job.

These days newspapers often see training as the responsibility of the future employee. So they offer unpaid internships during which, if you can afford to keep yourself, you can make yourself useful and learn how many sugars the editor has in his tea. Only if you are very lucky will you land a job at the end of it.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Can America go green?