Private school and an Oxbridge degree remain the currency of British politics

A House of Commons? PA/PA Wire

When the new crop of MPs take their seats after the May election, many may know each other from their days at private school or Oxbridge. A new study, published by the Sutton Trust, analysed the education of 260 prospective parliamentary candidates and found that 31% had attended private school and 19% studied at either Oxford or Cambridge. A majority of 55% had attended a Russell Group university.

The study, which looked at those candidates with a reasonable possibility of victory based on opinion polls and history in each constituency, reveals a picture of both continuity and change. Among current MPs, 33% went to private school and 24% went to Oxbridge.

Parliamentary privilege continues

The continuity with the current educational profile of MPs is evident in the high number of privately educated and Oxbridge graduates. This is particularly striking among candidates from the Conservative party, but is also evident among the other parties, as the graph below shows. The study also indicates the continuing “bourgeoisification” of the Labour party which has been apparent and growing since the post-1945 period.

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Although fewer prospective Labour MPs went to private schools than their Conservative counterparts, they were still nearly three times more likely to have done so than the electorate as a whole.

Signs of political change can be found in the emergence of a cohort of prospective UKIP candidates, reflecting the Party’s plan to build on recent successes in European and local government elections. Although the numbers are small – with only 30 candidates included in the study compared to 154 from Labour and 64 from the Conservatives, a surprising 36% of UKIP prospective candidates were privately educated. This is perhaps somewhat at odds with the “ordinary man in the street” image often associated with UKIP.

Of course, there may be nothing wrong with the continued dominance of privately-schooled and Oxbridge-educated candidates being elected to parliament. Some would argue that we surely want the most able people to be running the country. The majority of private schools use entrance exams which ensure that only those who are academically able get in. Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge Universities have a range of admissions procedures designed to ensure that only those with outstanding academic qualifications obtain a place. Seen in this way, one might want to suggest that perhaps more rather than fewer prospective MPs should be privately schooled and Oxbridge-educated.

Not just a meritocracy

But there are a number of grounds upon which to challenge this argument. Despite academic selection procedures which attempt to eliminate bias, access to these privileged educational pathways is less meritocratic than appears to first sight. Getting into a private school is not only about having sufficient academic ability, it is also about having sufficient financial resources.

While many private schools do offer scholarships and bursaries, these cannot be said to have opened access on a significant scale. And even when funded scholarships have made been more widely available – such as through the Conservative government’s Assisted Places Scheme – they often failed to reach the most disadvantaged children.

The strong connection between private education and access to Oxbridge raises even more doubts about the meritocratic nature of these education pathways. Although there is some year-on-year variation, around half the new entrants to Oxford and Cambridge continue to come from private schools – schools which educate only 7% of the secondary school population.

Not even the strongest advocate for private schools could claim that these schools contain half of the UK’s academic “talent”. This is not to blame the institutions involved, but rather reflects the strong and enduring influence of social background on educational processes and outcomes. Despite attempts to increase social mobility, there continues to be close association between an advantaged family background, privileged educational pathway and prestigious career.

Closer to constituents

Yet even if access to private schools and elite universities were to operate entirely on meritocratic lines, there is a point to be made that the educational backgrounds of parliamentary candidates – and ultimately MPs – should more closely resemble those of their constituents. Education is not only about filtering out the most able, it is also about a range of social experiences which affect the way we see the world. Interacting with other children who are less academically able and from a wider range of social backgrounds will surely increase understanding of other lives that can only enhance politicians’ capacity to govern.

Of course, we should not presume that simply going to a state-maintained school will bring about such exposure. Some state schools, and especially state-maintained grammar schools – of which there are 164 remaining in England – are so vastly oversubscribed that they are likely to be more socially selective than many private schools. And even fully comprehensive schools can operate internal selection procedures – such as streaming – which effectively segregate students along lines that reflect and reinforce differences in social background.

Making our education system more equitable is extremely challenging and there are no easy answers. It will be important to follow those parliamentary candidates that are successful and examine whether and how their own educational backgrounds influence their enthusiasm and ability to address this challenge.