Britain's Most Powerful 'More Likely To Have Been Privately Educated

Nicola Slawson

Britain’s most powerful people are five times more likely to have been privately educated than the general population, new research suggests.

Only 7% of Brits are privately educated, compared to 39% of those in top positions, according to data from the Sutton Trust.

It says the report, published with the Social Mobility Commission, shows that power rests with a narrow section of the population – those who attend private schools and the 1% who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge.

The research, released as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, who both went to elite boarding schools and then onto Oxford, vie to be the next prime minister, reveals a pipeline from fee-paying schools through Oxbridge and into top jobs.

The head of an education union said the research was proof that Britain is still a “deeply divided and unequal class-based society”, while a leading think tank called the figures “scandalous”.

Tory leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt both went to elite boarding schools and then to Oxford.

Researchers looked at the educational backgrounds of more than 5,000 of the country’s leading people in 37 categories across nine broad areas for the report – Elitist Britain 2019 – which was published on Tuesday. 

They examined politics, business, the media, Whitehall and public bodies, public servants, local government, the creative industries, women and sport.

The report suggests that there has been some increase in the diversity of educational backgrounds at the top since Elitist Britain 2014 was published, but change is happening slowly.

For the first time the research looks at the backgrounds of tech chief executives, entrepreneurs and those in women’s sport. Even among newer categories – like in tech – there is a disproportionate number of privately educated people at 26%.

Researchers said there had been pockets of positive change, but the report paints a picture characterised by persistent inequality. They found that social mobility across the UK is low and not improving. 

It found women are under-represented in all of the areas surveyed but for those who do make it to the top, their education journeys look different to men.

They are less likely to have attended Oxbridge than their male counterparts, including the judiciary, where they are 25 percentage points less likely, and the House of Lords, where they are 21 percentage points less likely.

At the time of the analysis in spring 2019, almost two fifths (39%) of the cabinet was privately educated. In contrast for the shadow cabinet, it was just 9%.

Across the 37 categories looked at, only among men and women footballers were the privately educated under-represented.

Eton schoolboys.

Researchers also found that across various public bodies there is a majority of private school alumni. They make up 65% of senior judges, 59% of civil servant permanent secretaries, 57% of the House of Lords, and 52% of Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats.

The media also has some of the highest numbers of the privately educated. Of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, 43% went to fee-paying schools, and 44% of newspaper columnists were privately educated.

Among the wealthiest members of the TV, film and music industries, there are substantial numbers of independent school attendees, at 38%, the research suggests.

The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission make a number of recommendations in the report to ensure the talents of people from all backgrounds are made use of.

These include tackling financial barriers to specific industries and professions, especially by paying internships of significant length, and adopting contextual recruitment and admissions practices.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chairman of the Sutton Trust, said Britain is an increasingly divided society.

He said: “Divided by politics, by class, by geography. Social mobility, the potential for those to achieve success regardless of their background, remains low. ”

“The key to improving social mobility at the top is to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools.

“In addition, we should open up independent day schools to all pupils based on merit not money as demonstrated by our successful Open Access scheme.”

Dr Luke Heselwood, from think tank Reform, said these “scandalous figures show that the UK is far from being a meritocracy”.

He said fixing the problem would require serious reform to the education system, adding that despite improvements, the most advantaged are nearly 10 times more likely to attend elite universities than the most disadvantaged.

“If candidates vying to become prime minister are serious about giving equal opportunity to all, they must focus on raising the attainment of disadvantaged school pupils so they can apply to elite universities,” he said.

“Top universities must also embrace contextualised admissions and offer more support to students to help them to succeed,” he added.

Angela Rayner, Labour's shadow education secretary, said top professions remain a 'closed club'.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said: “For too long our top professions have been a closed club, dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite who attended the same private schools.

“The old boys’ network and the old school tie still hold back talented and hard-working people from less privileged backgrounds.”

The results were concerning for the education sector. 

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “As this research makes clear, Britain is a deeply divided and unequal class-based society with those in the most powerful and prestigious professions much more likely to have attended private schools and Oxbridge than the country as a whole, despite these institutions educating a tiny minority of the population.”

He said it was “simply unacceptable” that in the 21st century, the biggest indicator of future employment, wealth and status is the school or university you attended and the wealth and social position of your parents.

He added: “It is clear that the Government’s emphasis on ‘social mobility’ has failed. Instead, Government must commit to tackling and ending poverty and inequality in the UK.”

Russell Hobby, chief executive of Teach First, called the figures shocking. 

He said: “The next prime minister must put a fair education for all at the heart of their vision, investing in schools and teachers to unlock the potential of all children, not just some.

“Only then will future leaders arrive at No.10 from more diverse backgrounds, to be truly representative of the people they serve.”  

For the report, researchers looked at past school and university attendance for around 6,000 individuals.

Publicly available sources were used including Who’s Who, media interviews, local newspaper reports and LinkedIn profiles. In some cases information was provided confidentially by the individual.

School category was defined as where the individual spent most of their secondary school years, and university where they completed their first undergraduate degree.

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