In Britain today, where a child went to school remains the best indicator of how far they will progress in life. That society is so dominated by the independently educated is “truly shocking”, Sir John Major lamented three years ago. David Cameron accepts as much. Since the general election, the Prime Minister has highlighted the fact that earnings are more closely linked to parental income in the UK than anywhere else in the OECD and railed against the paucity of black students at Oxford.
A new Sutton Trust report exposes how far Cameron has to go to make good on his ambitions to make Britain a classless society. From law to medicine, entertainment and far beyond, the power of the old school tie stubbornly refuses to die in Britain. Over 70 per cent of elite army officers and the country’s top judges attended independent schools. So did the majority of journalists, top doctors and Oscar winners. Michael Gove had it right when he said: “More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.”
The Sutton Trust’s findings would be startling were they not so familiar. Some of the “small signs” of progress detected merely emphasise how engrained private school dominance is. In law, the percentage of top judges who attended independent school has fallen from 76 in the 1980s to 74 per cent today. Half of the cabinet are privately educated – less than after the 2010 election, but more than after 2005. And the proportion of leading editors who attended private or grammar schools has fallen from over 90 per cent in the 1980s to 80 per cent today.
Only in business does more tangible progress detectable. The proportion of FTSE 100 chief executives educated at independent schools has fallen from 70 per cent in the late 1980s, to 34 per cent today. But that figure is deceptive, because the number of foreign chief executives has risen significantly: only a third of FTSE 100 chief executives educated in the UK came from comprehensive schools.
Addressing private schools’ stranglehold on British life requires fighting a war on many fronts: ending unpaid internships over four weeks, as the Sutton Trust advocate; pressurising businesses to produce more information on who they employ; and getting everyone to apply to university after receiving their grades, not before.
State educated children also need help in competing with the non-academic advantages a private education provides. “An independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork, which are vital to career success,” says Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust. 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, another report recently found. Too often who you know matters more than what you know. Teaching soft skills in state schools might help a little, as could clamping down on internships based on parental connections – a shame, then, that Cameron once described himself as “very relaxed” about giving work experience to the children of his friends.
There is no panacea to hand to the dominance of private schools in British life: the issue is far too deep-rooted. Redressing this will not by done by politicians winning cheap headlines for picking fights with universities or businesses, but by a relentless focus on improving prospects for disadvantaged children from the very start of life. The UK is one of few countries in the OECD in which class sizes are larger in primary schools than secondary schools, emblematic of a lack of regard for early years education. Even aged five, “a large amount of the gap in educational attainment visible throughout the school years between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers has already opened up,” as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently found. Politicians serious about improving social mobility should start by giving primary education the attention it deserves.