Conor Ryan on why the candidates’ education backgrounds are important

This was the week when education became an election issue. David Cameron and Nicky Morgan unveiled their plans for turning mediocre schools into academies, reviving school numeracy and school spending. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne edged towards explaining how Labour would deliver a promise to cut tuition fees to £6000 without upsetting the universities.

In this week when the politics of education was in full flow, it seems appropriate to look more closely at the education of politicians, and specifically at those candidates whom their parties think have a fair chance of being elected on May 7th.

Today’s Sutton Trust research brief Parliamentary Privilege looks at the school and university education of 260 candidates who were already selected by mid-December 2014 either to replace sitting MPs from their own parties or in seats that their party is targeting. This means that we have a bigger range of candidates for the parties than current polling would suggest any is likely to win, but it also gives us statistically significant samples for Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP which restricting their number to seats expected by the pundits to switch would not allow.

And the picture it gives is not encouraging. For all the talk of changes to Parliament after May, the educational picture is likely to remain pretty much unchanged.

There may be a slight reduction in the proportion of privately educated MPs, but it will probably remain around a third. Slightly fewer of the Conservative candidates we looked at are privately educated than are the current MPs, but the total remains around half; nearly a fifth of Labour’s candidates are privately educated compared to a tenth in the current House; and a third of the UKIP candidates we looked at also went to an independent school.

You would expect a higher proportion of our politicians to be university educated than the population as a whole. Among the candidates, 55% went to a Russell Group university, five times the national average. More interestingly, 19% went to Oxbridge compared to less than 1% of UK adults.

Of course, the challenge for us all is to open up more places at our best universities for able young people from low and middle income backgrounds, to ensure that our elites – not just politics, but the law, medicine, the city and media – are more representative. As James Turner described last week, that’s what Sutton Trust summer schools and other access programmes are doing.

But the concern many have had is that so many of today’s politicians have come from a route that goes from PPE at Oxford through a political job (perhaps as a researcher or special adviser) into becoming an MP. 40% of our sample of candidates had what might be seen as a career in politics before wanting to become a politician.

That’s not good for democracy. But then we have made it that much less attractive for people in non-political careers to enter politics than before. Expenses and funding scandals, constant ridicule and widespread disdain may have been brought by some politicians on the political class, but it still makes it unattractive to many to give up a secure and relatively quiet job for the life of modern MP.

The Russell Brands of this world may say it doesn’t matter: politics doesn’t change things. But the truth is that it does. Even this week’s education debates could lead to improved local schools or more affordable university degrees. Such changes affect individual lives.

I have personally argued often elsewhere that we need to see practical changes that could eliminate a lot of the stench from today’s politics: more state funding than exists currently, flat allowances for MPs depending on where they live, a less unwieldy second chamber, fairer voting systems.  Politicians have only themselves to blame for not grasping those nettles.

But constitutional change is not enough. We need to change attitudes among young people and improve opportunities to engage them in the political process and debate. Better citizenship and more debating in schools could help.

Moreover, fundamental change will mean ensuring that the path to politics is widened by fairer access to those universities that so often lead into political careers, paid internships opened up beyond the friends of MPs and a more active engagement with all the parties in widening their candidate base so that they engage people of all social classes as actively as they have sought to ensure more female and BME candidates in recent decades.

Politics itself should be a part of the election debate. Hopefully, our research brief today can help put it there.

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