Lee Elliot Major explains why we need to open up Britain’s elite

Speaking truth to power is a hazardous thing to do. Michael Gove’s school reforms may have divided opinion. But it was the former Education Secretary’s attack on the ‘preposterous’ number of Etonians in Prime Minister David Cameron’s inner circle that some say sealed his fate.  It didn’t go down well. Within months Gove had lost his job.

So Alan Milburn and the Social Mobility Commission should be commended for not pulling any punches in a wide-ranging and hard-hitting analysis of the narrow educational backgrounds of the country’s ruling elites. Building on a raft of Sutton Trust studies ‘Elitist Britain’ presents a shocking if unsurprising picture of the nation’s most powerful people.

What the political-journalistic-legal power axis will make of it is another issue. Our political masters, law makers, and opinion formers remain highly unrepresentative of the people they are intended to serve. The Commission’s data confirms the Trust’s studies showing a third of the Cabinet, over half of leading news journalists and seven in ten senior judges come from private schools which educate just 7% of the country’s school pupils.

But they constitute in many ways the ‘meritocratic elite’ prophesised by the late Michael Young. His widely cited but much misunderstood book ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’ predicted the rise of an elite emboldened by ‘an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal’ providing a seal of approval and legitimacy absent for previous ruling elites. The data on educational backgrounds used to expose the privileged make-up of those in charge is also evidence for them that their lofty positions are fully deserved.

Last week the Daily Telegraph reported that this year’s private school pupils have achieved an even greater haul of A grades at A-level than their predecessors, and are set to tighten their stranglehold on access to the country’s leading universities. No doubt they will provide the editors, ministers and judges of 2034.

All the signs are that future elites will be equally educationally exclusive as those who govern us today. Elitist Britain reports that two thirds of new journalists come from managerial and professional backgrounds – twice the proportion in the population as a whole.

But where Young got it wrong was to predict an increasingly efficient system for identifying academic merit. One of education’s scandals is that we do not support nearly enough the high academic achievers in state schools so they can compete with their privately educated peers. The momentum created by Andrew Adonis under New Labour to nurture academically talented state school pupils has been squandered. The Trust is now extending its work to support the educational development of talented children during their early teenage years.

The Commission’s data suggests that those in charge are selected from a frighteningly shallow pool of talent. ‘Few people believe that the sum total of talent in Britain resides in just seven per cent of our country’s schools,’ says Milburn. Today’s elites almost certainly lack the ‘cognitive diversity’  that leading businesses believe is so critical for good decision making.

‘It is entirely possible,’ the report says ‘for politicians to rely on advisors to advise, civil servants to devise policy solutions and journalists to report on their actions having all studied the same courses at the same universities, having read the same books, heard the same lectures and even been taught by the same tutors.’

The Sutton Trust’s university access programmes are known for transforming the lives of academically gifted teenagers from low and middle income backgrounds. But what is less appreciated is that we hope that their many other attributes – resilience, grit, hunger – shaped in the challenging circumstances they grew up in will also enable them to prosper in the workplace.

Drawn from such a tiny slice of society with very similar upbringings it is little wonder that the nation’s elites appear increasingly detached from and untrusted by the rest of the population – appalled by Parliamentary expenses abuse, phone hacking or indeed the excesses of executive pay. For Young these would all be warning signs of a future revolt from a disenfranchised working class (due in 2033).

For all this I worry that the Commission’s call for action will be kicked into the long grass by those with vested interests to keep the playing fields slanted in their favour. During his tenure as Education Secretary, Gove would apparently quote Machiavelli: ‘There is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success or more dangerous than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.’

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