When my eldest son was at his private school, each year the school magazine singled out for special mention the A-level pupils who had won places at Oxbridge. The others in the year were not named.
I gave a careers talk at the same school. The headmaster sat in and looked bored. It was par for the course: he and I had barely exchanged a word in my son’s four years at the place.
At the end of the talk I took questions. One was, “which university did you go to?” When I said, “Cambridge”, the head came to life. From that point on, throughout my son’s life at the school, he always found time to stop and chat.
I put my hand up: I sent my son to a fee-paying school. I went to a state grammar, then to Oxbridge. In many people’s eyes I’m as snobby as that headmaster.
Except I’m not. There will be some people, who, on reading Elitist Britain? the report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, will allow themselves a self-congratulatory smirk. As an affirmation of everything they’ve striven for and believe in, it takes some beating.
In the higher echelons of public life – whether it’s the judiciary, armed forces, Whitehall, BBC, even the England cricket and rugby teams – they and their friends rule. Just 7 per cent of the public as a whole attend independent schools, yet 71 per cent of our top judges did so, 62 per cent of our senior military officers, 55 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries, 26 per cent of BBC executives, 35 per cent of England rugby players, and 33 per cent of the national cricketers.
One in seven judges went to just five independent schools. More than 20 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet went to private school against that 7 per cent national figure; 33 per cent of Ed Miliband’s would-be governmental team are Oxbridge graduates, versus less than 1 per cent of the public as a whole. On the divide goes, though the media and business. At the BBC, 33 per cent of the Corporation’s executives are Oxbridge; 12 per cent of those on the Sunday Times Rich List went to those two universities. In a year’s guests on BBC’s Question Time, 43 per cent of them were ex-Oxbridge and 37 per cent attended fee-paying schools.
I can see the former head (he’s since retired) of my son’s school digesting this, and nodding and smiling. Britain has little changed since he donned a gown - he liked to wear a gown – and no doubt first entered one of its exclusive cloistered establishments.
Elitist Britain: Run by the privately educated
Elitist Britain: Run by the privately educated
Hardly a surprise: One in three (33 per cent) of MPs went to private school, compared to seven per cent of the public. This includes 52 per cent of Conservatives, 41 per cent of Liberal Democrats, and 10 per cent of Labour MPs
2/7 The media
More than half of the top 100 media professionals (54 per cent) are privately educated, compared to 47 per cent in 1986. Half of them went to Oxbridge, while two thirds of new entrants to journalism have managerial and professional family backgrounds
Although the Government is committed to ensuring a more diverse judiciary, seven in 10 senior judges went to independent schools
4/7 The England cricket team
A large percentage of England's cricket team is privately educated: 33 per cent
5/7 BBC executives
26 per cent of BBC executives went to private school.
6/7 Civil Service
Over half (57 per cent) of Whitehall permanent secretaries are Oxbridge educated, while 11 per cent went to comprehensive schools
7/7 House of Lords
Although it doesn't seem possible, the House of Lords is even more dominated by the elite than the Commons: two thirds of Conservative peers, half of Labour, and 62 per cent of crossbenchers attended an independent school. A miserable 12 per cent went to a comprehensive
The Left may have railed and screamed, the PC brigade might have their say about diversity and inclusivity, but as this document shows, they’ve made little headway. Britain, his Britain, is still in safe hands.
Which of course it is, if those at the very summit are also taken into account. In the 21 century, three of the highest posts in the land are held by men, all of whom went to Eton and Oxbridge.
The Mayor of London went to Eton and Oxford, the Prime Minister went to Eton and Oxford, and the Archbishop of Canterbury went to Eton and Cambridge. When David Cameron became Prime Minister, I recall watching the TV broadcast from College Green in Westminster. First up to comment on his credentials to lead us was the Mayor, Boris Johnson, himself Eton and Oxford. He was followed by a succession of talking heads, all of whom had either been to the same school or Oxbridge. And I remember shaking my head in frustration then as I am doing so today on studying Elitist Britain?
Why did I send my son to private school? Because I wanted him to have the education I’d enjoyed at my state grammar.
Why did I go to Cambridge? Because my headmaster suggested I should try. I did, and was successful, but other boys in my year did not put their names forward and would have had every chance of getting in.
That makes me annoyed. They too could have enjoyed the same teaching and facilities. They too could have availed themselves of the alumni networks.
What dissuaded them was not the intellectual side – they were clever enough – but the social aspect. They were not prepared to attempt to mix with students from private schools; they did not want to be made to feel inferior.
The report’s authors come up with some solutions. These include: no more unpaid internships; increased availability of funding for postgraduate education, state schools to provide greater extra-curricular activities and ensure their pupils receive excellent careers advice and access to alumni networks; top universities to take a rounder view of a candidate; employers to widen their talent pools; recruiters to seek university-blind applications, so no mention is made anywhere of a candidate’s alma mater.
All highly commendable. But nowhere near far enough. There is only one way to prevent a similar study coming up with identical findings decades hence, and that is to abolish private schools. That is the clear signal from this report – that the link between private schools and Oxbridge, and private schools and Oxbridge and top jobs, is as dominant as it ever was.
It has to be broken. There’s nothing wrong with having two meritocratic leading universities, provided they are truly meritocratic and students do not gain coveted places on the strength of their parents being richer and able to afford to send them to a better school – one that will coach them fully in the Oxbridge entrance process. Plenty of our global rivals have elite universities.
No. The answer has to be to scrap the fee-payers completely, abolish the exclusivity, and get rid of the word “private”. That’s unlikely to occur, given the CVs of those in power. But it really is the only solution.