Report Overview

The nature of Britain’s ‘elite’ is higher in the national consciousness than ever, with a series of events, including 2016’s vote to leave the European Union, putting a focus on the strained trust between significant sections of the population and those at the highest levels of politics, business and the media.

Social mobility across the UK is low and not improving, depriving large parts of the country of opportunity. This contributes strongly to this sense of distance. This study, conducted for the first time by both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, looks at the backgrounds of around 5,000 individuals in high ranking positions across a broad range of British society, and provides a definitive document of who gets to the top in Britain in 2019.

The report paints a picture of a country whose power structures remain dominated by a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attend independent schools, and the roughly 1% who graduate from just two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

View our interactive map.


Britain’s most powerful people are 5 times more likely than the general public to have gone to private school


Over half of senior judges went through the private school to Oxbridge ‘pipeline’.


Across 37 categories, only among men and women’s footballers were private schools under-represented.

Key Findings
  • Two fifths (39%) of the elite group as a whole were privately educated, more than five times as many as the population at large, while a quarter (24%) had graduated from Oxbridge.
  • Politics, the media, and public service all show high proportions of privately educated in their number, including 65% of senior judges, 59% of civil service permanent secretaries and 57% of the House of Lords.
  • Thirty-nine per cent (39%) of the cabinet were independently educated, in stark contrast with the shadow cabinet, of which just 9 per cent attended a private school.
  • Findings reveal a ‘pipeline’ from independent schools through Oxbridge and into top jobs. An average of 17% across all top jobs came through this pathway, but this figure rises as high as 52% of senior judges, and one third of regular newspaper columnists.
  • Sport (particularly football), the arts and local government were areas with the lowest numbers of those coming from socially exclusive educational institutions.
  • Across the 37 categories surveyed in the report, only among men and women’s footballers were the privately educated under-represented.
  • Looking at the five years since 2014, Elitist Britain 2019 shows isolated pockets of positive change, but a picture characterised by persistent inequality. The proportion of the elite who are privately educated appears to be decreasing, but change is happening slowly.
  • More significant is in the decline of grammar school alumni among the elite (20%), down about 7 percentage points in five years, and a consequent rise in those educated at comprehensives (40%, up 9%). This reflects the abolition of the selective system in most of England during the 1960s and 70s, and the rise of the comprehensively educated generation to positions of power.
  1. Social diversity should be a key mission across the whole of British society to ensure we make use of the talents of people from all backgrounds. Enacting the ‘socio-economic duty’ clause of the Equality Act 2010 should form the centrepiece of this. Obligating public bodies to give due regard to how they can reduce the impact of socio-economic disadvantage would send a powerful signal.
  2. Data on the socio-economic background of employees should be collected and monitored by employers in the same way as gender or ethnicity. Employers should follow Cabinet Office advice on the best measurements to use, including parental qualifications, occupation, type of school attended, and eligibility for free school meals.
  3. Financial barriers to entry to leading industries and professions must be tackled, including unpaid internships of significant length. Employers should comply with National Minimum Wage Regulations. But given the confusion among employers and interns around the law on this, there should be specific legislation which clarifies and tightens the rules around internships.
  4. Recruitment practices should be open and transparent. Internships and entry level jobs in particular should be openly advertised to help young people from under-represented groups get a foot on the ladder.
  5. Employers should adopt contextual recruitment practices that place attainment and successes achieved in the context of disadvantage, including underperforming schools and less advantaged neighbourhoods.
  6. Class pay gaps, and differences in retention and promotion rates should also be addressed. Better access to jobs is only the beginning; progression within an organisation is also key to real social mobility. Employers should look at barriers to progression and send a message to staff that fostering an inclusive culture is paramount.
  7. Leading social mobility employers should take a sector leadership role and share best practice. For a culture of equal opportunities to spread more widely, sector leaders should take a role in sharing and promoting best practice within their sector.
  8. Universities should revolutionise their practice in relation to disadvantage, by contextualising admissions and reforming their approach to outreach and partnership. Highly selective universities in particular should recognise the differing circumstances faced by applicants.
  9. School admissions processes need to tackle social segregation in schools. High performing comprehensives, grammar schools and independent schools should all do more to increase the numbers of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  10. High quality careers advice needs to be available to young people from all backgrounds. All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers. For those facing disadvantage there should be further support available.

Upcoming research

We are currently collecting responses for an updated edition of Elitist Britain.

If you would you like to make a suggestion on which professions or sectors we should look at in our next piece, please respond to our Call for Ideas form.