Posh and Posher: Why public schoolboys run Britain

Nigel Ford's picture
A television programme by Andrew Neil on BBC 2, Jan 26, which seems to promote the message that it will be unlikely this country will ever see a Prime Minister emerge from an ordinary background like his, as politicians from all parties appear to be drawn from an ever smaller social pool pertaining to a public school education.

Neil himself was grammar school educated and from 1964-97 the 5 PMs were all products of his selective state education. His theme seems to be that because grammars have now largely been abolished the path to power for Joe/Jane Bloggs is pretty much closed because comprehensives don't offer the same opportunities, so nowadays political life is less meritocratic and determined more by social circumstances.

Neil obviously has a pro grammar school agenda and because the period from 1997-2015 will have seen the PM post in all but 3 of those years held by ex public schoolboys, Blair and Cameron, this will aid his argument. According to the write-up I read, no current politician from any party wanted to publicly participate in his documentary.

It's a shame Ed Milliband, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham couldn't find common ground with William Hague, Liam Fox and Theresa May, all comprehensive educated, to tell him to stick his biased theories where the sun doesn't shine. Unlike privately educated politicians of all parties I note state educated (particularly comprehensive) ones like to play up their backgrounds.

Back in 1979 when Thatcher formed her first cabinet John Biffen and her were the only 2 members out of 21 who weren't privately educated, so things have moved on from there even if they may have regressed in Tory circles since John Major's time.

I shall probably watch the programme and try and keep an open mind but will be surprised if the topic is tackled with any impartiality.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 12:43

There's also a difficult-to-define point about ethos and atmosphere; many of our "elite" institutions such as Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, the Judiciary, Westminster politics, the "upper echelons" of the media do have a very "public school" atmosphere, which puts off the vast majority of the public because it has such a "clubbable" atmosphere, where many public school boys know each other. Apparently, Neil's programme will touch on this. I think these institutions need to address this more formally. For example, it seems obvious that to get a "researcher" post in the House of Commons -- which is often the first step to becoming an MP nowadays -- you need to have contacts which will get you the job, often contacts gained from being at Oxbridge or a particular public school. Then once there, you have to "fit in" with the extremely "public school" atmosphere of the House of Commons; it really is like being at boarding school in a way. Intelligent comprehensive pupils I've taught have been mystified by the atmosphere they've encountered in places like the House of Commons, or the Bar and put off.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 14:58

I think that may be true of the Tory MPs but I think a lot of Labour MPs will actively try and recruit interns from state schools although the 'networks' also exist there of course. I rather liked Andy Burnham's idea about all interns being paid ( not discriminating against those without families to fund them) and required to go through an open competitive process to get selected.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 15:06

I agree with Fiona. I think there is a major issue about unpaid internships in the media, politics, law etc because poor students can't afford to be unpaid for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. My journalism students at Greenwich Uni were very jealous of their wealthier counter parts who could afford to be unpaid for a year or so because they were supported by parents etc.

Azer's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 16:31

The present system of education in the UK is responsible for many failings. Above of all, the educational apartheid has produced a divided nation of have and have-not: financially, morally and mentality.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 24/01/2011 - 09:15

I do wonder if these kinds of debates get exaggerated, depending on who is power. The last time we seriously debated women at the top of politics, Thatcher was in power. If Ed Miliband were PM and Andy Burnham were Education Secretary the media would be talking endlessly about the new ' compocracy'.

What I find more interesting is the way that the new elites have adapted themselves to a more informal era - certainly before the election, 'Dave' did a reasonably good job of appearing to be a man of the people. But the longer he and Nick and George and the rest of them are in power, the more people seem to recognise and resent their educational privilege, particularly as they start to cut provision in sports, art, IT for those who started out with so much less.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 26/01/2011 - 10:52

I've posted after the article Fiona wrote on the same issue but Melisaa is correct that a argument is constructed by Neil on the basis of a tiny group of people. That's obviously not to deny there is an issue of social mobility. Neil's thesis is very thin yet will be accepted by most of the national press tomorrow.

Those who go on endlessly about the massive social mobillity experienced in this country between 1950 and 1970 due almost entirely to grammar schools have to explain why exactly the same process occurred in the USA which has never had a significant selective system.

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 27/01/2011 - 10:34

Very unimpressed with the programme which was biased in its output. Neil said a third of the Labour Cabinet were Oxbridge educated so by my arithmetic 67% of them weren't.

I thought Sarah Teather, as a privately educated politician, gave a hopeless defence of standing up for the comprehensive educated politicians who held prominent roles in their respective parties.

Andrew Neil said the number of Old Etonians had increased in parliament but he failed to say that there are none from the Labour party since 2010 and the Lib Dem Old Etonian, David Rendel, lost his Newbury seat in 2005. Laughably, he focussed on the Stoke constituency which had chosen the posh Westminster educated, Tristram Hunt, but failed to tell us that he was replacing a Labour old Etonian in Mark Fisher.

What was more relevant and worrying was the growth of the career politicians who had left university to work as a researcher or in some think tank before graduating to an MP without ever having done a job outside politics.

If Neil had really wanted to pick up on the background of MPs or Prime Ministers in particular, there is one glaring anomaly to do with education and it doesn't involve the type of school they attended. He kept talking about the common theme of Oxbridge education but that is a misnomer, because all 9 of the post war Oxbridge PMs were in fact Oxford educated and not Cambridge. The same goes for most of the "Oxbridge" cabinet and shadow cabinet (notwithstanding Nick Clegg).

If say all the Oxford politicians were private educated and all the Cambridge ones were state educated, you would see a far greater bias between the private and state sector than what currently exists.

Still why let a fact like that get in the way of the propaganda you're trying to promote?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/01/2011 - 11:13

I, too, am concerned about the growth in the number of career politicians. It promotes a very narrow view of the world and the feeling that a career in politics is like a cosy club. I'm also concerned when former researchers, interns, assistants and think-tankers set up organisations which are then given money and work by the politician for whom they were connected. The New Schools Network springs to mind.

Helen Flynn's picture
Thu, 27/01/2011 - 11:38

I was similarly underwhelmed by the programme. Just an excuse for Neil to bang on about grammar schools and how they must be the solution as, look how well he has done.

I also always find it annoying when prominent journalists do not realise that when Michael Young coined the term 'meritocracy', it was meant as a pejorative term to show that meritocracy simply replaces the feudal system as just another form of elitism.

What was particularly exasperating was Neil failing to put the more grass roots or non-elite politicians rising to power in the 60's-90's in the wider context of changing social mores during that period, coupled with the effects of universal education from the 1944 education act finally trickling through, and opening up opportunity for people from a wide range of backgrounds.

The main reason why these people are rising to the top again now is (a) voter apathy and disengagement with the political landscape (contrast the current scenario with a higher level of citizen engagement in the 60s-80s), and (b) a voting system that is dominated by safe seats which political parties can parachute their cronies into.

dan clayton's picture
Thu, 27/01/2011 - 15:59

What Melissa says is spot on.

Blair, Clegg and Cameron have all managed to tap into the linguistic markers of everymanness (Does that word exist? It does now...) and the body language of empathy and (what my students call) relatability (yuck!).

And, by the look of it, they've managed to make a significant proportion of the electorate fall for it.

Alan's picture
Thu, 27/01/2011 - 23:34

I’m surprised by Neil’s support of, what is essentially, a far-right eugenic ideology initially propagated by Galton in an attempt to quantify his own academic failure. His influence on Burt gave rise to the 11-Plus and Hitler saw great potential in selection, the rest is history, as they say. Even today, a few deluded educationalists continue to support selection by 11-Plus.

A meritocratic belief that a grammar school education can level the playing fields of Eton could be correct if you consider the unbalanced intake of children i.e. 2% SEN and FSM and a token gesture of poor kids to balance the books if you’re lucky. No wonder then why 95% of grammar school pupils achieve 5 A-C GCSEs. Nearby schools also suffer, they are seen as second-best by families of “11-plus failures”. A mindset that hardly provides an environment conducive to aspiration and attainment, it more typically represents a growing educational apartheid in the remaining selective counties.

“It’s better to select on ability rather than ability to pay” I hear some say.

This is nonsense. All things ain’t equal. In its present form grammar school does not enable the working classes to compete; families, who can afford a few thousand quid each year, as Neil puts it, are better place to prepare for selection, be it coaching or preparatory school.

Some believe that the 11-plus selects the brightest, most able and competent children. This is extremely doubtful, as intelligence remains an enigma. What is more likely is the test favours early bloomers and children who have been coached. Rejection at 10 years, around a time when the brain is preparing for an adolescent growth spurt is education at its worst.

Age standardisation of the 11-Plus is also flawed, if it wasn’t the National Foundation for Educational Research would publish raw scores. Having a small local sample (number of children) taking the test makes it difficult to infer an effect size to a total 11-Plus population, so scores are a closely guarded secret. The bigger the sample from individual schools the greater the confidence that your school’s sample is a true representation of the population. No wonder then why children are pressured by feeder schools to take the test. Try getting your child’s results if they have failed and see how far you get. Better still, ask to see their paper.

Children have no real choice other than to take the 11-Plus due to influence from teachers and peers, but parents are cited as making the final decision if there are repercussions.

I’m all for grammar schools, and or, comprehensive education. But let’s have it for every child that wants to learn not just a select few who can pass a glorified quiz, albeit, with “a little help.”

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:25

Eugenics was initially a 'far-left' philosophy, but it's much more fun to label everything nasty as 'far right'.

Julian Springer's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 10:27

Buying a book from WH Smith and spending a few hours a week with your child is a far cry from spending thousands of pounds on tuition!

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:30

Further to my remark above, advocates of eugenics included H. G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, George Bernard Shaw, Keynes and Sidney Webb, all left-wing so-called 'intellectuals'. Only its adoption by the Nazis (national SOCIALISTS) discredited it. A strong opponent was arch-conservative G.K. Chesterton and the wicked old Catholic Church.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.