Elitist Britain – where who you know matters more than what you know

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A damning report into who runs the British Isles, has revealed a country run by private school alumni and Oxbridge graduates – with elitism that is "so stark it could be called social engineering". Pete Henshaw reports.

“Our examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found elitism so stark that it could be called ‘social engineering’.”

This is the damning conclusion of new research that set out to discover “who is in charge of our country”. 

The resulting report, Elitist Britain, highlights “a dramatic over-representation” of those educated at independent schools and Oxbridge within the institutions that have the most influence on our country.

The investigation has been undertaken by the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and its chair, Alan Milburn MP, in his foreword to the report, says its findings suggest that Britain is “deeply elitist”.

He adds that the make-up of Britain’s elite risks “narrowing the conduct of public life to a small few, who are very familiar with each other but far less familiar with the day-to-day challenges facing ordinary people in the country”. “That is not a recipe for a healthy democratic society,” he writes.

The report calls for a “national effort” from politicians, parents, schools, universities and employers to “break open” Britain’s elite.

The research included an analysis of the background of 4,000 leaders in politics, business, the media and other aspects of public life in the UK. 

It found that 71 per cent of senior judges, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 36 per cent of the Cabinet, 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet, 33 per cent of MPs, and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists attended independent school. This compares to seven per cent of the general population.

Meanwhile, even though less than one per cent of the population attends Oxbridge, its alumni are equally dominant.

The report reveals that 75 per cent of senior judges attended Oxbridge, as did 59 per cent of the Cabinet, 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet, 38 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 24 per cent of MPs, and 47 per cent of newspaper columnists.

The report also shows that children born into the 25 per cent highest income families are substantially more likely to have high incomes as adults. It concludes that family/parental background has a stronger link to children’s futures in Britain than many other countries.

Furthermore, research for the Commission reveals that 65 per cent of people believe that “who you know” is more important that “what you know”.

The report states: “A lack of diversity in the people who run the country is a problem in and of itself: the risks are ‘group think’ and a lack of understanding of those with different backgrounds. Certain professions should arguably be representative of the public for reasons of legitimacy: for example, politics, media and the judiciary.

“A narrow elite suggests serious limits on adult social mobility: given the importance of school and university background, it seems prospects of making it to the very top are limited for those who begin their career without these advantages.”

The report calls for schools to “redouble efforts” for disadvantaged high attainers at 11 to achieve results at 18. It also says that the gaps in quality careers advice, work experience and extra-curricular activities between the disadvantaged and advantaged must be closed.

For politicians, it calls on the government to “lead by example” with their recruitment decisions and “open up” top jobs in the sector. Unpaid internships should also be tackled, it adds.

It also says government policy must focus on schools, to “broaden the supply of talent”, including “both high attainment and broader character skills needed to thrive in the workplace”. It says the closing of the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is a key priority.

Universities, meanwhile, are urged to engage with a wider range of schools to raise aspirations, while employers are asked to consider “university-blind applications” and non-graduate entry routes.

Firms are also encouraged to advertise work experience and paid internship opportunities, while also building “long-term relationships with schools on mentoring, careers advice, and insights into work”.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has said it will “take the lead” on this agenda by engaging with firms, conducting future research on low pay, advising ministers and publishing an annual “state of the nation” report.

Mr Milburn added: “We hope this report prompts a re-think in the institutions that have such a critical role to play in making Britain a country where success relies on aptitude and ability more than background or birth.

“Few people believe that the sum total of talent in Britain resides in just seven per cent of pupils in our country’s schools and less than two per cent of students in our universities. 

“The risk, however, is that the more a few dominate our country’s leading institutions the less likely it is that the many believe they can make a valuable contribution.

“A closed shop at the top can all too easily give rise to a ‘not for the likes of me’ syndrome in the rest of society.”

Elitist Britain

Seven per cent of the British population attends independent schools, compared with:

  • 71 per cent of senior judges.
  • 55 per cent of Whitehall Permanent Secretaries
  • 53 per cent of senior diplomats
  • 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords
  • 45 per cent of public body chairs
  • 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 43 per cent of newspaper columnists
  • 36 per cent of the Cabinet
  • 33 per cent of MPs
  • 26 per cent of BBC executives 
  • 22 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet.

Less than one per cent of the British population attends Oxbridge, compared with:

  • 75 per cent of senior judges
  • 59 per cent of the Cabinet
  • 57 per cent of Whitehall Permanent Secretaries
  • 50 per cent of senior diplomats
  • 47 per cent of newspaper columnists
  • 44 per cent of public body chairs
  • 38 per cent of members of the House of Lords
  • 33 per cent of BBC executives
  • 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet
  • 24 per cent of MPs
  • 12 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List 

 


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