At first glance, the report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission contains few surprises. After all, do we really need the UK’s official monitor of progress in making the country a fairer place to tell us it’s unfair?
Three of the highest offices in the land are held by men who attended Eton and Oxbridge. The Mayor of London went to Eton and Oxford, the Prime Minister went to Eton and Oxford, the Archbishop of Canterbury went to Eton and Cambridge. The Cabinet, as we know, is stuffed full of alumni of fee-paying schools and Oxford and Cambridge. There is, then, little shattering about “Elitist Britain?”
Nevertheless, the watchdog’s study is a profoundly disturbing document, painting a bleak picture of a nation that likes to think it has shaken off the class-ridden strictures of the past but is in deep hock to them still. In the higher echelons of public life – whether it’s the judiciary, armed forces, Whitehall, BBC, even the England cricket and rugby teams – a small elite is wildly over-represented. 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, and 55 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries.
How can it possibly be right that in this so-called modern, inclusive country, one in seven judges went to just five independent schools? Neither is it so simple a matter as a right-wing ruling establishment looking after its own: 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet went to private school against that 7 per cent national figure. The divide goes on, through the media and business. 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.
These aren’t throwaway statistics to be revisited in gentle TV comedies about class – they are extremely real and raise serious questions. How can professions and public bodies begin to have any understanding of the people they profess to serve when they’re so heavily comprised of representatives from identical backgrounds? We like to boast that Britain is more meritocratic and egalitarian than it once was, a worthy competitor in the 21st-century global marketplace, but those words ring hollow when confronted with these findings.
Our leaders argue passionately for greater social mobility, but, as this study finds, they surround themselves with colleagues who experienced similar cloistered schools and colleges. Set against “Elitist Britain?”, genuine social mobility in the UK is but a figment of the fertile imagination of a senior politician or mandarin (Eton and Oxford, probably).
Worryingly, there is little sign of change. In 2012, only 25 recruits to the Civil Service Fast Stream, out of more than 600, were from working-class backgrounds. Strides have been made in public life to open up opportunities to women and ethnic minorities. The same approach has to be taken towards class. If that means positive selection on class grounds then so be it. All the advantages that those at the top take for granted must be tackled, such as open-ended unpaid internships. Instead, we need increased availability of funding for postgraduate education; schools to provide greater extra-curricular activities and ensure their pupils receive excellent careers advice and access to networks; universities to take a rounder view of a candidate; and employers to widen their talent pools. One intriguing proposal is for recruiters to seek university-blind applications, so no mention is made anywhere of a candidate’s alma mater.
This, and more, has to be followed if Britain is to truly change. Make no mistake: while we ponder, countries that are not so hidebound are powering ahead.