Opening up England’s best universities has quietly been one of the greatest public policy successes of the last decade. Disadvantaged pupils are 61 per cent more likely to attend university than in 2006.
This should be heralding in a new age of meritocracy, destroying the value of the old school tie for good. It is not. What Michael Gove termed “The Berlin Wall” – the gulf between state and private education – is still holding back those educated at state schools in the world of work. Three and a half years after graduating someone educated at an independent school will earn £2,250 more than someone from state school with identical qualifications, a new report by the Sutton Trust funds. Previous research has shown that, all other things being equal, a private education is worth an extra £57,000 in earnings by the age of 42. All graduates with the same degree might be equal, but some are evidently much more equal than others.
“School background and less tangible qualities such as social skills may have a significant impact on pay progression,” the report explains. Not only are pupils at the best private schools 1,000 times more likely to get into Oxbridge than those on free school meals, but they also enjoy a further advantage after graduating. School fees do not only pay for a superb quality of education; they also buy soft skills and – more than anything else – a network of contacts that can be cultivated for life.
The phenomenon is hardly unique to Britain. In Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, Lauren Rivera explains how contacts and informal networks determine which graduates rise in the most prestigious American firms. Here the emphasis on those who “fit” – itself set by a disproportionate number of those from the best schools and universities, so it becomes self-perpetuating – serves as a hindrance to disadvantaged graduates both getting into the firms and then excelling within them. “Firms define talent in a manner that excludes high-performing students from less privileged backgrounds,” she observes.
The Sutton Trust’s findings suggest that the same is true of too many English firms today. So while lifting up the standard of state education and continuing the sterling access work of many top universities are both integral to boosting social mobility, they are not enough.
Companies also need to do much more. That should start with work experience, which often builds relationships that lead to jobs. It is embarrassing that work experience is often still offered as a favour to family friends; placements should be awarded on a fair and transparent basis, with CVs independently evaluated on a name-blind basis. A similar ethos must govern all hiring, firing and promoting. That firms in England are more receptive to those from private schools than those from state schools with the same qualifications speaks of a deep malaise.
Changing the culture of companies would not just benefit those from less advantaged backgrounds but also the firms themselves, who would belatedly be making full use of the country’s talents. In 2015, the old school tie remains a potent weapon.