Britain’s top people are over five times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population. Just 7 per cent of Brits are privately educated, compared to two-fifths (39 per cent) of those in top positions.

The findings are presented in Elitist Britain 2019, a new report by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, which maps the educational backgrounds of leading figures across nine broad areas: politics, business, the media, Whitehall and public bodies, public servants, local government, the creative industries, women and sport.

Today’s report suggests that there has been some increase in the diversity of educational backgrounds at the top since Elitist Britain 2014 was published, but change is happening slowly. For the first time the research looks at the backgrounds of tech CEOs, entrepreneurs and women’s sport. Among newer categories – like leading tech CEOs – there is a disproportionate number of privately educated people (26%).

The research finds that power rests with a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attend private schools and the 1% who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge. Today’s report reveals a ‘pipeline’ from fee-paying schools through Oxbridge and into top jobs. 52% of the leading figures in some professions (senior judges) came through this pathway, with an average of 17% across all top jobs.

Thirty-nine per cent (39%) of the cabinet, at the time of this analysis in spring 2019, was independently educated. This is in stark contrast with the shadow cabinet, of which just 9 per cent attended a private school.

Interestingly, the educational make-up of the shadow cabinet has changed markedly since 2014, when 22 per cent of then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet were privately educated. Of current MPs in the House of Commons in 2017, 29% come from a private school background, four times higher than the electorate they represent.

There is a majority of private school alumni across various public bodies:

  • Senior judges (65 per cent).
  • Civil service permanent secretaries (59 per cent)
  • The House of Lords (57 per cent).
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats (52 per cent)

The media also has some of the highest numbers of the privately educated. Of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, 43 per cent went to fee-paying schools. Similarly, 44 per cent of newspaper columnists were privately educated, and a third (33 per cent) went to both an independent school and Oxbridge.

The report found big differences in the educational backgrounds of men and women at the top of sporting life. The 5 per cent of men’s football international players who attended independent schools stands in stark contrast to the 37 per cent of rugby internationals and 43 per cent of the England cricket team who had done so.

Women’s teams showed similar patterns to their male counterparts in terms of school background, but around 80 per cent of women’s internationals across football, cricket and rugby had attended university, compared to a very small number of men.

Women are under-represented at the top of all top professions. However, for women who do make it to the top, their journeys do not always look the same as those of their male peers.  While women in top roles are still much more likely to have attended a private school than the population at large, they are less likely to have attended Oxbridge than their male counterparts.

Among the wealthiest members of the TV, film and music industries, there are substantial numbers of independent school attendees, at 38%. Best-selling popstars are 30% privately educated, less than top actors who are 44% privately educated.

Across the 37 categories surveyed in the report, only among men and women’s footballers were the privately educated under-represented.

The reasons why some groups continue to be over-represented in certain professions are complex and include access to education opportunities, financial barriers and the accumulation of social and cultural capital. But there are benefits to opening up the UK’s top professions to a more diverse talent pool. Many firms and industries have recognised this and there has been a welcome focus on diversity and professional access in recent years.

The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission would like to see social diversity adopted as a key mission to ensure we make use of the talents of people from all backgrounds. The report includes several recommendations to improve social diversity through the education system and employment practices including:

  • Tackling financial barriers to specific industries and professions, especially by paying internships of significant length.
  • Adopting contextual recruitment and admissions practices to enter top universities and industries.
  • Tackling social segregation in schools through fairer admissions practices in comprehensives and grammars and opening up private schools.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Britain is an increasingly divided society. Divided by politics, by class, by geography. Social mobility, the potential for those to achieve success regardless of their background, remains low. As our report shows, the most influential people across sport, politics, the media, film and TV, are five times as likely to have attended a fee-paying school.

“As well as academic achievement an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and team work which are vital to career success. The key to improving social mobility at the top is to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools.  In addition, we should open up independent day schools to all pupils based on merit not money as demonstrated by our successful Open Access scheme.”

Dame Martina Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, added:

“Politicians, employers and educators all need to work together to ensure that Britain’s elite becomes more diverse in gender, ethnicity and social background. It is time to close the power gap and ensure that those at the top can relate to and represent ordinary people.”


  • The Sutton Trust is committed to improving social mobility from birth to the workplace. Founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997, the Trust has supported over 30,000 young people through evidence-led programmes and published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research, many of which have influenced government policy.
  • The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) is an advisory non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the UK and to promote social mobility in England.


  • Past school and university attendance were collected for around 5,000 individuals occupying high ranking positions in 37 different categories of profession. Publicly available sources were used including ‘Who’s Who’, media interviews, local newspaper reports and LinkedIn profiles. In some cases information was provided confidentially by the individual, and as a consequence, we are unable to provide further disaggregated data from the report.
  • School category was defined as where the individual spent most of their secondary school years, and university where they completed their first undergraduate degree.
  • Further details on how the lists were created are in the Methodology section of the report.


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