Attached below is a summary of the findings of the latest Sutton Trust research into the educational backgrounds of 500 leading figures in law, politics, medicine, journalism and business. Comparing the school and university destinations of those in leading positions today with their equivalents of 20 years ago, the study finds that over half of the top 500 were educated at independent schools – which today educate just 7% of school-age children – and that this has declined only marginally in the last twenty years.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Lee Elliot Major, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, 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.”
Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman and founder of the Trust commented:

“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 percent 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, along the lines of the Open Access scheme at the Belvedere School in Liverpool. We should also ensure our grammar schools and top comprehensives are more socially diverse.”

Educational backgrounds of 500 leading people in the UK

Overall findings:

Over half of today’s leading figures across five different sectors were educated at independent school, even though these account for just 7 per cent of the school-age population.

The analysis of 1000 leading people (500 now and 500 a generation ago) in the fields of politics, law, journalism, medicine and business shows that 53 per cent of today’s leaders who attended UK schools were independently educated – compared with 58 per cent of people who were top of their professions a generation ago.
Just under a third of leading people today were educated at grammar schools, with only 17 per cent educated in state comprehensives.

The proportion of top people who were educated at Oxbridge declined over the period. Two decades ago, 61 per cent of the 500 leading people who had attended a UK university had studied at Oxford or Cambridge – compared with 47 per cent of current leaders.
The analysis also found:

  • High court judges were most likely to be independently educated, with 70 per cent from independent schools in 2007 and 74 per cent in 1989.
  • Politicians are the least likely to be privately educated, with 38 per cent from independent schools in 2007 and 46 per cent in 1974 (the last time a Labour government was in power). They also have the largest proportion of leading members from state comprehensives: over a third were from these schools in 2007.
  • Three in ten of current Labour ministers were privately educated, while one in four went to grammar schools; 44 per cent of the Conservative shadow cabinet were privately educated.
  • The biggest decline in independently educated people was among FTSE 100 chief executives: in 1987, 70 per cent were from private schools; by 2007 this figure had dropped to 54 per cent.
  • However, this latter figure applies to a smaller number of people as so many chief executives of FTSE companies are now non-British and were thus educated abroad. Just under a third of CEOs are currently from abroad, compared with less than one in ten 20 years ago.
  • Journalists and medics were most likely to come from grammar schools, with about a third of the figures in the top 100s coming from selective state schools.
  • High court judges were most likely to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge, with 78 per cent from Oxbridge in 2007 and 87 per cent in 1989.
  • Medics were the least likely to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge, with 15 per cent from Oxbridge in 2007 and 28 per cent in 1987. The biggest falls in Oxbridge educated leaders were among politicians and chief executives.


Table 1: Percentages of leading people at different types of schools

.YearIndependent %State %State Selective %State Comp

 All figures are percentages in relation to UK educated people

Table 2: Percentages of leading people who have been to university educated at Oxbridge


 All figures are percentages in relation to UK educated people


The analysis is based on information on the educational backgrounds of 100 ministers and shadow ministers, 100 high court judges, 100 leading news journalists, 100 medics serving on councils of the royal medical colleges, and the chief executives of the FTSE 100 companies. Figures were collated for current people in these positions and those in equivalent positions two decades ago (with the exception of politicians). All the figures are based on the school and university backgrounds of individuals, gathered from official sources such as ‘Who’s Who’ or from responses from the individuals themselves.


In the field of medicine the study focused on information on the school and university backgrounds of medics with positions on the Councils of the medical royal colleges or other national representative bodies. These Councils represent doctors at a national level for particular specialisms or for the profession as a whole. The figures were compiled for 100 Council members in 2007 and 100 Council members in 1987.


The study compiled school and university backgrounds of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies in 2007 and 1987.
In the field of law, the study compiled school and university backgrounds of high court judges serving now and those in place in 1989.


The study looked at the educational backgrounds of Labour ministers and the Liberal and Conservative shadow cabinet (today) and Labour ministers and the Conservative shadow cabinet (1974 – when there was previously a Labour government in power).


The study looked at the educational backgrounds of leading news journalists in the print and broadcast media in 2006 and 1986.

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