Lee Elliot Major on a tale of privilege to coincide with our new Global Gaps report

For many it’s the perfect portrayal of the cumulative impact that privilege can have on someone’s life. Two weeks ago I posted a link to a simple cartoon strip created by an illustrator in New Zealand. It sums up so succinctly what the Sutton Trust aims to address: the stark divide in educational opportunities between those born ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ and those born on the upper rungs of society’s ladder.

“On A Plate” by Toby Morris, presents a short story about two people – one (Richard) born and nourished by privileged and supportive parents, the other born (Paula) born into a struggling family. The cartoon is copied below. On the left side of the cartoon Richard enjoys a life with the best education money can buy: attending a high performing school, receiving private tutoring, and securing an internship through his dad’s networks. Paula on the right side meanwhile suffers a diet of poor education, low aspirations and ill-health.

A stark attainment gap between privileged and non-privileged teenagers was confirmed again today when the Sutton Trust published our Global Gaps report on the highest achieving students in the latest international OECD PISA tests. By age 16 high achieving students from better-off backgrounds are already three years ahead of the highest achieving students from poorer backgrounds. The Sutton Trust research reveals stark socio-economic gaps between high achieving pupils throughout the world.

One suspects that Richard at age 16 would also be at least three years ahead of Paula in Morris’s powerful tale. As a social mobility/education geek, I do have a few quibbles with the story however. Large class sizes don’t really matter – it’s the quality of teaching that counts! And parents from poorer households have high aspirations for their children; they just don’t know the practicalities of helping to realise them. A true depiction of social immobility would chart the prospects of the respective offspring of Richard and Paula.

“On A Plate” is inevitably a caricature. Many people from privileged backgrounds work extremely hard – and that’s as much to do with their success as the opportunities they are fortunate to receive. And many acknowledge all the support that they’ve had. Thankfully many people escape from poverty. Some are helped by charities like the Sutton Trust. Richard and Paula are stereotypes for effect. All of which Morris freely admits.

But the cartoon strip has become global phenomenon, attracting millions of hits and comments. Morris has been swamped with messages from all over the world – Mexico, the UK, France, India, Canada, Thailand, Portugal, Argentina and the US. The illustrator wanted to challenge the “line of thinking that we all simply get what we deserve – that the wealthy must have worked hard, and the poor must be lazy, stupid, or both.” That the story has struck such a chord across the world suggest that there must be some truth in his artwork.

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