The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone cites the Sutton Trust’s Leading People report, and interviews our Chief Executive, Lee Eliot Major.

No sooner had Theresa May announced her first cabinet than the Daily Mail trumpeted the “March of the new meritocrats”. Goodbye old Etonians (give or take a Boris), hello state-school kids. While the Labour party was tearing itself apart, the Tories had taken the country out of Europe, probably destroyed the economy for generations to come, seen off its leader and yet somehow emerged rebuilt and glowing with egalitarian promise.

Forget David Cameron’s Notting Hill set, this was the Grange Hill set. May herself was (partly) state-educated, her chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is a working-class lad made good by a grammar school education, Justine Greening is the first education secretary to go to a mainstream comprehensive secondary school, and the party’s new chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is a former miner. Only 30% of the cabinet has been privately educated and 44% had Oxbridge degrees.

May talked about how tough life could be for “ordinary working-class families”. She insisted that her party was not interested in “the privileged few”, but in “all of our citizens”. “When it comes to taxes, we will prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” In its own way, this was as radical as John Major’s 1991 classless society speech. The one-nation pitch even had echoes of former Labour leader Ed Miliband.


A report from the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust earlier this year revealed that 42% of Britain’s Bafta-winning actors had been privately educated and a further 35% attended grammar schools. While it is true that the likes of Eton (alumni include Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West) have top facilities for aspiring thesps, that is far from the full story.


Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, talks of an academic arms race. “Every time opportunities widen for those from less privileged backgrounds, the middle classes find some way of defining merit to their advantage again. Never underestimate the skills and the tenacity of the middle classes to reinforce their privileged position in society. So there was a university expansion, but if you look at the more prestigious universities, there’s still a stark gap in terms of those from more advantaged backgrounds versus those from disadavantaged backgrounds. And increasingly you’re seeing post-graduate degrees.”

It is 11 years since the Sutton Trust published its headline-making report about social mobility. “It shocked the Blair government, showing that not only had social mobility declined over recent generations, but that we have lower social mobility than most other developed countries,” Elliot Major says. “Two factors outlined in that original research were educational inequality and income inequality; what happens inside the school gates and what happens outside them. And those two things interact and reinforce each other despite all the educational reforms. The challenge we face is deeply profound.”

The Sutton Trust has discovered that one statistic remains virtually unchanged in its 19-year existence – roughly half the elites among the professions were privately educated – and this despite the fact that only 7% of pupils attend private schools. “That means we are missing out on a lot of talent from the 93% that are still at state schools,” Elliot Major says.

When I speak to him he is spending the week at Cambridge University with more than 500 state-school students. “What we’re saying is: You don’t have to go to Cambridge, but give it a chance, because all our research suggests that, even with A grades, a lot of children have the attitude, it’s not for the likes of me.”

Read the online version of the article here.

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