John Major is right – but the problem isn’t only private schools

John Major is right to talk about the dominance of ex-private school pupils in public life. The problem is bigger than that, though.

Former Prime Minister John Major has described the dominance of privately educated children in the “upper echelons” of public life as “truly shocking”.

Major’s comments come on the back of a recent intervention over energy prices, in which he called for a windfall tax on the profits of the Big Six.

Despite first impressions, Major hasn’t had a late life conversion to socialism, however; rather he is simply stating the obvious: the dominance of private school alumni in public life is plain for all to see.

Fee-paying schools educate seven per cent of the pupil population but now produce 54 per cent of Tory MPs, 40 per cent of Lib Dem and 15 per cent of Labour, according to the Mail. In total, 37 per cent of MPs from the three main parties elected in 2010 were privately-schooled – up from 34 per cent in 2005 and 30 per cent in 1997, the paper says.

It isn’t just in politics that ex-private school pupils dominate, either. Today it’s almost impossible to break into journalism without significant financial backing due to the sheer amount of free work expected from a budding hack. After all, the only people who have time to fool around for no money are the people who already have plenty of it.

It would be a mistake, however, to view this strictly as an issue of private vs public education: comprehensives are just as likely to fail poorer pupils as private schools are to boost the chances of the elite.

This has a great deal to do with the assumption that selection in mainstream education was somehow abolished with the dissolution of the grammar school system. It wasn’t. It’s just that today it happens arbitrarily by house price rather than arbitrarily by a test taken at 11 years old.

Schools campaigner Fiona Miller summed up the blind spot many have about comprehensive education when she wrote last year that “Selective education was largely abolished (emphasis my own) because middle-class parents were incensed at their children being labelled failures at 11 and forced into secondary moderns starved of the balanced intakes all schools need”.

Taking her comments in reverse order, undoubtedly many affluent parents were indeed incensed when mummy’s little soldiers failed to pass their 11 plus; however in no sense was selection “abolished”, largely or otherwise, with the dissolution of grammars. It was instead replaced with selection by the most ruthless commodity of all: cold hard cash.

Access to a good comprehensive today is often decided by the ability of a child’s parents to pay the price of a house in a desirable catchment area. In 2012 premiums on houses in areas with good schools commanded an average price of £309,732 – 42 per cent higher than the average price of £218,114.

I’m not sure I wish to make the argument that grammar schools should be brought back in their old form – it’s incredibly unfair to allow the future of a child to be determined at 11 years old by a single test, the result of which was often prejudiced by the class background of the child.

However some honesty about school selection would be welcome: it’s just as prevalent today as it was under the old system, it’s just that today it’s the price of the parents’ house that determines what sort of school a child ends up at, and so often where they end up in life.

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23 Responses to “John Major is right – but the problem isn’t only private schools”

  1. dcfghkhlkjojobvgfgvd

    Major is correct the Tories are out of touch and elitist but Labour have also damaged the British working class through mass immigration that has caused millions to be unemployed, housing unaffordable, long NHS times and wages going low

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  2. Johnny

    What a load of rubbish socialists; Even in the land of equal opportunity America, Barack Obama from a humble background has been accused of elitism. In animal kingdoms there must always be a few who controls so many. The truth is everyone must compete their way up and defend their positions for their children and grand children. 99% of the richest men in the world are self-made not inheritence.

  3. Essexandy

    Its interesting that the area of the UK (Northern Ireland) with highest social mobility according to comparison tablesi is also the only area which has retained the Grammer school system.

  4. Alien Pirate

    Actually its about DNA of the individual which dictates their future – I have no interest in Money – fact – psycological assessment – not assumption – but I’ve worked for Technical Directors all my working life because of my Technical (craft ‘hands on’ ) ability and my man management skills – friends with less technical ability and no management skills have got further up the ladder simply because they have a different outlook on life and consider money important. I failed my 11plus – I didn’t know what it was – I did four years Apprenticeship (a Proper one) some Lads with exactly the same training and opportunites have reached dizzing heights of Head of Establishment and others never did anything but lowly Craft work – the only difference is our DNA!

  5. uglyfatbloke

    In the past most Scottish towns had ‘streamed comprehensives’ – comprehensive in the sense that there was generally only one secondary school available and therefore everyone went to it. In some urban areas (maybe most or even all – I don;t know) there was selection at 11 but pupils could be re-assigned to a High School or Secondary modern if their attainment – or lack of it – merited a move.

  6. Jae Guevara

    1. Barack Obama does not come from a “humble” background at all. In fact, he was educated at Colombia University and Harvard Law School.

    2.This is not the animal kingdom, we’re human beings.

    3. Valid point

    4. “99% of the richest men in the world are self-made not inheritance.” Sounds like you just made that up and you don’t really know what you’re on about.

  7. Sparky

    I love how the Left always characterizes society as the topped-hatted, champagne-drinking idle-rich vs the saintly, dressed-in-rags, works-down-mines poor. The vast majority of people are neither rich nor poor, and are quite able to fund their child’s education, if they wished to prioritize it.

  8. senoj

    Parents will send their children where the perceived risk of failure is least, and they do this only because they care the most. This is what drives everything in the majority of parental behaviour, house buying, school selecting etc.
    Therefore to balance the system, the emphasis and policy should be on connecting local schools and parents – making local schools as good as they can be for all who pass through their doors and celebrating this and the importance of this link, showing the evidence of what the school puts in and what the parents put in. If you’re behind your kids, they’ll reach their potential.
    I think it will take a generation, and a real committment from the first of the middle classes, but once the momemtum turns, the system of selection will go a long way to rectifying itself.

  9. Sidney Ruff-Diamond

    Where on earth did you get the notion that America is the land of equal opportunity?

  10. Sparky

    1. Yes, but he only attended those institutions because he was good enough to get in. Only the best go to Harvard Law School.
    2. The ‘dominant 5%’ has been observed consistently across human communities. In PoW camps in WW2 it was noted that only 5% of prisoners would lead and motivate the others to escape. Once this 5% was removed, the remainder would present very little escape risk.
    4. Whatever the statistics are, virtually every famous entrepreneur I can think of came from relatively modest background.

    Socialism holds back talented people because fundamentally it’s obsessed with ‘fairness’. In trying to treat everyone ‘fairly’ it ignores the reality that people are not equal, and were not intended by nature to be equal. They have different talents and abilities and those should be encouraged and fostered, not stripped down to a common denominator. Luckily, there simply aren’t enough people left who believe in socialism to ever impose it on the rest of us.

  11. m336fnr

    It’s morally wrong to avoid paying your full whack of tax but it’s
    morally ok to put your kids in a private school thats registered as a
    charity!! Dig fractious bosom.

  12. Dan Ash

    The only people who benefit from public schools are those that attend. The rest of us just pay for their leg up. Abolish all public schools and make every child attend a state school. If ministers, senior civil servants, bankers etc had to do this you’d soon see standards improve as resources got poured into the state system.

  13. Jacko

    I send my child to private school and I’m not wealthy. Neither are most of the other parents. It’s predominantly middle-class. It’s our choice how we spend our money, not your’s.

  14. PatrickAinley

    The official phasing out of grammar schooling after 1965 was unaccompanied by any curricular reform, leaving the comprehensives competing with private schools and surviving grammars on the uneven playing field of academic qualifications that function as indicators of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital. In any case the period of limited upward social mobility after the war came to an coincident with but not as a consequence of this structural reform of education.(See radicaled latest publication ‘Education Beyond the Coalition’ ed martin Allen and Patrick Ainley to be launched at Goldsmiths College, London next Tues (19th) 5.30 – 7.

  15. Dan Ash

    Your choice indeed, though we all have to support your decision financially. As the law stands you have every right to send your child to a private school. I just happen to think it’s a bad law. I want to see every child get an equal chance through education.

  16. Teesside voice

    Johnny Fascist, might is right

  17. Jae Guevara

    1. He’s actually from a very comfortable background.

    2. The 5% can only control those who consent to being led and regulated by others, hence histories many documented revolutions.

    4. “Whatever the statistics are, virtually every famous entrepreneur I can think of came from relatively modest background”.

    It’s true, most prominent entrepreneurs are self made, but does that mean that these individuals constitute 99% of the wealthiest individuals? Can I see some evidence please?

    I’m not a socialist, however it does make some valid arguments with regards to fairness.

    For example, if you check statistics globally you will notice direct correlation between rates of violent crime and income inequality. You will also notice that it is the countries which have the largest gaps between rich and poor which have the highest rates of violent crime, not the poorest countries.

    So considering that that fairness is in everybody’s interest, as it leads to a more cohesive and less violent society, maybe the idea’s not such a bad one?

  18. Trispw

    Smaller towns certainly only had one school. Selection was at 12 (the exam was called the Qualifying Exam or Qually — not the 11+ as in England). Larger towns had Academies and Junior Secondaries, but there was transfer between them. It was a case of getting the right education for the child based on its aptitudes. I think though, that you could transfer in English schools from Sec Mods to Grammar School.

  19. 3arn0wl

    Sir John Major seems to’ve caused a bit of a stir with his observation – causing a tsunami of calls for the return of grammar schools:

    The truth of the matter though is it’s not just affluence or social class that affects educational outcomes – there are a multitude of factors at play:

    But if we want a more meritocratic society, then it has
    to start with education, and a more segregated system would be perverse. What’s needed is a level playing field of no selection and no
    school fees.

  20. TM

    Whichever way you look at it, the Rich and the Middle class get the breaks and the affluent careers and the rest of the people have to make do on low wages, zero hours contracts and part time dead end jobs. The inference being that the privileged have a future and the rest of us don’t. The growing wealth divide and the drive to create wealth for some to the exclusion of others always results in a justification for such a reality.

  21. TM

    I’d say that morality is the last consideration now. How many rich people seem to effortlessly dodge tax? Probably most of them. See what happens if someone not rich dodges tax. One law for them and another law for the rest.

  22. Patrick Nelson

    You can’t be poor either if you send your child to a private school unless it is a crap one or did bratlo get a scholarship?

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