Azara Blog: Lots of the UK ruling elite went to private school

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Date published: 2007/06/28

The BBC says:

More than half of the leading figures in UK politics, law, medicine, business and journalism went to independent schools, research suggests.

A survey of 1,000 people for the Sutton Trust said the proportion had fallen only marginally in the past 20 years - from 58% a generation ago, to 53%.

However, among those who had been to a UK university the proportion from Oxbridge fell from 61% to 47%.
Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, compared the school and university background of 500 people currently at the top of their fields with 500 similarly successful people 20 years ago.

He found 53% of today's leading figures across five different sectors had been educated at independent schools. Overall, private schools educate just 7% of school-age children.

A generation ago, 58% of leading people in the same sectors had been privately educated.

Just under a third of the leading figures today were educated at grammar schools, while only 17% went to state comprehensives.

Dr Elliot Major said: "This analysis shows that the school you attend at age 11 has a huge impact on your life chances, and particularly how likely you are to reach the top of your chosen profession.

"We are still to a large extent a society divided by wealth, with future elites groomed at particular schools and universities, while the educational opportunities available to those from non-privileged backgrounds make it much more difficult for them to reach the top."
The chairman and founder of the trust, Sir Peter Lampl, said: "The first priority should be to improve our underperforming state schools but we also need to recognise that we have a socially selective school system.

"The top 20% of our secondary schools - independents, grammars and leading comprehensives - are effectively closed to those from non-privileged backgrounds.

"We should open up independent day schools to children from all backgrounds on the basis of merit alone."

All of the Sutton Trust reports read like they come from people with (several) chips on their shoulders about private schools and Oxbridge. If the Sutton Trust (i.e. Peter Lampl) spent less money on pointless reports and more money on education, the world would be a better place.

And unfortunately the author of the report, Elliot Major, makes a classic confusion between correlation and causation when he states that "this analysis shows that the school you attend at age 11 has a huge impact on your life chances". When you use a phrase like "has a huge impact" you are implying a causation, when of course all they have shown is a correlation. But needless to say, the Sutton Trust believes the causation, so is happy to fall into the trap. (And the BBC, as usual, holds the same views, so is also happy to let the claim pass without querying it.)

At least Lampl wants to "improve our underperforming state schools", but he ignores whether they are "underperforming" because the funding is inadequate or because the students are worse (on average) or because the curriculum is hopelessly skewed by the government (or some combination). One thing is clear, large chunks of the middle class have no faith in state schools.

And the suggestion by Lampl that "we should open up independent day schools to children from all backgrounds on the basis of merit alone" is based on fantasy. Private schools need to make money. Parents are not going to be happy to have to throw even more money at private schools just because the government wants to force private schools to subsidise ever more non-paying students. So the uptake of these "merit" places (i.e. places for children of pushy working class parents) will be limited. And the state schools will decline.

The real solution is to make sure that all state schools are good enough that parents want their children to go to them. You would not think that was too much to ask for.

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