Sutton Trust

Improving social mobility through education

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16 January 2012

Imagine a world where children's chances of getting into the best schools did not depend on the wealth of their parents, but their talents. Where brains not bank balances mattered most. In such a world, independent schools would not be the exclusive preserve of the rich, and education would not be split by a system of class-based apartheid as it is now.

Believe it or not such a world did exist and not very long ago.  It existed in Britain during the three decades following the Second World War.  It is no coincidence that this was the golden age of social mobility. What is startling is just how open the school system was during this time.

Historic research we just completed showed that through the direct grant scheme which included
175 schools and a number of local schemes, 70% of leading private day schools in England were principally state funded until 1976. Very few people realize that now or know the benefits these schemes brought - I know as I attended one of those schools. The experience was transformational for me as it was for many others.

I went from a very modest upbringing in West Yorkshire, to Oxford and eventually on to found a successful private equity firm, the Sutton Company, and then the Sutton Trust, which improves social mobility through education.  A number of my school friends from modest backgrounds have also done well and I’m thinking particularly of one friend who was a farm worker’s son who became a top journalist.

Until the direct grant and local schemes ended in 1976 all the places at my school were free whereas now it is 100 per cent fee paying. Most of my classmates, myself included, could not go there today. So much attention is given to the demise of grammar schools at this time that we forget that the independent day schools were huge engines of opportunity for talented children from non-privileged backgrounds. It is an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth that has been consigned to history.

What we now have is an elite education system that benefits the richest, rather than the brightest. Studies by the Sutton Trust, which I chair, show that social mobility has declined in Britain since the 1950’s and is now with the United States joint lowest in the developed world. Our elites are dominated by the independently educated, even though they only account for 7 per cent of the school population.

We found that applicants from just five top independent schools achieved as many Oxbridge places as applicants from well over half of the state secondary schools and colleges in the country. Our boardrooms, newsrooms and courtrooms are populated not by the brightest the country has to offer, but by the expensively educated. The system is rigged in favour of children from privileged backgrounds.

There is however a way and a will to open up elite educational opportunity once again.  Most of the independent day schools which were state funded still exist but now entry is for the most part dependent on ability to pay.

We believe the best way to change this is to introduce a scheme where all places at leading private day schools are awarded on merit alone - democratising entry so it’s based solely on merit not money, thus opening up the schools to children from all backgrounds. Parents would pay a sliding scale of fees according to their means.

We, together with the Girls’ Day School Trust, trialled such a scheme at the Belvedere School in Liverpool where over a 7 year period entry was based on merit alone. Under the scheme, the social mix of the school became much more diverse with 30% of pupils on free places, 40% paying partial fees and 30% paying full fees. Academic standards went up and the school was a happy place.

Because costs were shared with parents who paid according to means the cost per place to us as sponsors was less than the cost to the government of a state school place. In other words if the Government stepped into our shoes they could have funded the best school in Liverpool at less than they currently spend on a child in a state school.

A number of our most prestigious schools including such famous names as Manchester Grammar, King Edward’s Birmingham and City of London for Boys are now convinced that the ‘Open Access’ scheme is the way forward.  They are frustrated at being able to educate just well-off children when they have a tradition of educating the brightest, irrespective of parental income. They are willing to adopt Open Access with necessary safeguards over state funding and the freedom to operate as independent institutions. Open Access could be rolled out nationally with Government funding.

It is time we ditched our ridiculous class system. It is grossly unfair and other developed countries are already much better at developing their talent than we are. In an increasingly competitive world we just can’t afford to waste talent when faced by the competitive challenge of countries such as China and India.  Work done for us by the Boston Consulting Group showed that improved social mobility would add a very conservatively estimated 4% to our GDP which reflects the economic impact of a better educated workforce.

As is so often the case with education we need to look back to move forwards, before the golden era of social mobility becomes an even more distant memory.

Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation