Ellie Levenson: Once a head prefect, always a head prefect

My comprehensive didn't have prefects, although I was, for a week, gerbil monitor at infant school
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The Independent Online

A survey published today by human resources firm DDI shows that most captains of industry were already ambitious, and on the route to success, at school. It shows that 90 per cent of chief executives and board-level directors held roles such as head boy or girl, or prefect, with many holding more than one position of responsibility. In fact, 50 per cent of those surveyed captained sports teams, while 37 per cent were debating society speakers and 28 per cent had a lead part in a school performance.

As well as showing that you need an ability to play the power-trip game and to get into positions of authority as quickly as possible in order to succeed in life, the survey results illustrate very well how one opportunity leads to another, and how, unless we intervene to ensure all children are given opportunities, it is easy to get left behind from an early age

One respondent to the anonymous survey, when asked how he had gained his leadership experience, replied: "I was a born leader of men and a born administrator."

He may be a natural leader, but this attitude of being born to it is only one step away from those people who claim we all have a set station in life. Though on the surface they claim that these opportunities are open to all if you work hard, be it school prefect, or leader of industry, they overlook the fact that for many in society this just isn't true. It's not easy, for example, to become a school prefect if you're hungry and can't concentrate; if you don't have encouragement at home that gives you confidence or have encouragement but no resources; if you're being teased because you can't afford the right school uniform; if you can't afford to go on school trips; if you don't have a quiet area in which to do your homework; if you have to look after younger siblings while your parents do shift work, and so on.

For example, Institute of Fiscal Studies research into children who grew up in poverty during the 1970s showed that they did consistently worse at school than their better-off peers, were six times less likely to enter higher education, were one and a half times more likely to be unemployed and earned 10 per cent less during their lifetimes than those who did not experience poverty as children. This is precisely what the Labour government is trying to address with Sure Start and its early years policies, though it has a hell of a lot more to do if we really are going to open these opportunities up for all.

It's a vicious cycle. You need those examples of leadership and success when you're applying for further education and when you're applying for jobs. I must admit, however, that I don't write from experience. My comprehensive school didn't have prefects, having, instead, those pesky old-fashioned egalitarian principles that refused to put one pupil above another. I did, however, once have a week as gerbil monitor at infant school. And if my secondary school had had prefects, it is precisely this kind of leadership position, with references from Fluffy and Spot, that would have supported my application for class captain and school prefect.

Nevertheless, as I never had this opportunity, my prejudices have been allowed to take hold and I regard anyone who was a prefect with some suspicion. One respondent said they had been made a prefect "because I was brash, outgoing - an interesting and charismatic person". I have no doubt at all that, in addition to these qualities, they were also the kind of snoop who, in different circumstances, would have absolutely no qualms about informing the secret police of your anti-statist activities, unless, of course, you put them in charge of it.

With such positions come access to more and more opportunities. We see it perfectly illustrated in the Harry Potter series, where we are told that prefects have two carriages to themselves on the Hogwarts Express, the train that takes the young wizards to their boarding school at the beginning of each school year. Here, one can only imagine, not least because they are imaginary, that the prefects forge friendships, swap revision notes, share secrets and generally form an elitist group that keeps everything in the club. It is this kind of practice that keeps positions of power predominantly in the hands of a homogeneous group - what Janet Street-Porter referred to, 10 years ago now, though still utterly as relevantly, as the "dreaded four 'M's: male, middle class, middle-aged and mediocre".

Not that all prefects are mediocre, of course. The skills that lead to the appointment of some young leaders are, no doubt, the skills needed to run a business, or a country. But unless we nurture these skills in all children, including ensuring that every child is given opportunities from the very beginning, then the social make-up of this group of leaders, which in this survey of 105 people included just six women and, no doubt, very few, if any, members of ethnic minorities, will not change. Which, no doubt, suits those currently in the club very well, but does society a disservice.