Leader: The 7 per cent problem – how to address the domination of private schools

Under a Fair Access Scheme, private schools would select a proportion of state-funded pupils according to government criteria.

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There are few causes to which Britain’s political parties pay greater rhetorical fealty than social mobility. Left and right alike declare that birth should not determine destiny, but, in a disquieting number of areas, it still does. In few other countries in the Western world does a child’s family inheritance so strongly determine what he or she achieves in life. As Michael Gove, then education secretary, said in a fine speech at Brighton College in 2012: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.”

In January 2014, we published a special issue on what we called “the 7 per cent problem”: the dominance of public life by the privately educated. David Kynaston, with his son George, co-wrote the cover essay. Now, with Francis Green, he has published a new book on the 7 per cent problem, Engines of Privilege (reviewed by Janice Turner on page 38). Today, former private school pupils account for 74 per cent of judges, 71 per cent of lawyers, 61 per cent of doctors, 51 per cent of journalists and, though this figure has improved, 29 per cent of MPs. The old ruling elite has become the new ruling elite. Parentage still dictates your progress in modern Britain.

Intergenerational income mobility – a measure of the extent to which parents’ earnings correlate to those of their children – is higher in the UK than anywhere else in the OECD. Not only is this unfair for those not born into privilege, it is a grotesque waste of human talent that no country can afford in a globalised era. The headline statistics on the dominance of the privately educated in fact understate the extent to which opportunity tracks privilege. Well-off parents who move house, often at huge expense, to live within the catchment area of the leading state schools also use their wealth and influence to maximise opportunity for their children.

Yet identifying such problems is easier than solving them. The private school dilemma was succinctly captured by a Labour education minister’s civil servant in the 1960s: the government, he said, couldn’t decide whether “these schools are so bloody they ought to be abolished, or so marvellous they ought to be made available to everyone”. All Labour governments have shied away from abolition (as the current party leadership does too). Instead, politicians, including Michael Gove, have proposed incremental solutions such as imposing VAT on private school fees (also the present Labour position). The risk, however, is that less wealthy parents are forced into the state sector, while the most prestigious schools become even more exclusive.

Mr Green and Mr Kynaston propose a Fair Access Scheme under which private schools select a proportion of state-funded pupils – initially a third but rising over time – according to government criteria. They also advocate greater use by universities of contextual data, which permits lower admissions offers to less advantaged state school pupils (who once at university, studies have shown, outperform their peers from private schools). 

Beyond such technical fixes, more fundamental change is required. In a country as unequal as Britain, the notion of “equal opportunity” for the rich and poor will always be fictitious. As the work of Leon Feinstein, director of evidence at the Children’s Commissioner office, has shown, bright but poor children are overtaken by their less gifted but more fortunate peers at the age of six. To reverse this, Britain must strive to reduce income and wealth inequality and, as the more egalitarian Nordic countries do, invest significantly more in early years education, because by the time pupils enter secondary school the attainment gap is far harder to eliminate.

The Brexit vote was, among other things, a protest against a stratified society of the kind anatomised by the French geographer and author Christophe Guilluy in his book Twilight of the Elites (which Jason Cowley writes about on page seven): a self-segregated elite has captured the benefits of globalisation while leaving others to bear its costs.

Without significant educational reform, the only certainty is that further revolts will follow.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail