Elitism in Britain: unequal opportunities = unequal outcomes

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

In my previous post, I showed that, on the basis of their educational background (i.e. whether they attended an independent school and one of the top two universities), the UK cabinet is very much part of the Establishment or the elite of the country. In stark contrast to the German cabinet, there is an extreme concentration of people with such a background: a staggering 42.8% of the British cabinet, are doubly privileged, David Cameron and George Osborne included.

If that was not amazing enough, I would like to report some of the results of an official analysis by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission called Elitist Britain (2014).

Secondary Education and Higher Education are the foundation for elitism

Whereas 89% of pupils attend comprehensive schools, 4% go to grammar schools and a further 7% to independent schools, the latter being independent in terms of finances as well as governance. The terms independent and private school are used synonymous in the UK and basically involve significant tuition charges which only the affluent can afford.

Whereas 62% of the UK adults do not attend university, 1 in 9 attend the so-called Russel Group Universities (the leading 24 higher education institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge or Oxbridge) but only 1 in 100 attend Oxbridge or 1% of the adult population, which is a classic definition of the elite.

Britain’s elite: formed on the playing fields of independent schools

To get a feel for the influence of the independent schools, consider the following statistics: 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Permanent Secretaries, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists, 36% of the Cabinet, 35% of the national rugby team, 33% of MPs, 33% of the England cricket team, 26% of BBC executives and 22% of the Shadow Cabinet attended independent schools compared with 7% of the public as a whole. This means complete domination of the most powerful and influential positions in UK society by those that attend independent schools.

Britain’s elite: finished in Oxbridge

If that provides food for thought, than the influence of the top two universities in the UK is absolutely gobsmacking: 75% of senior judges, 59% of the Cabinet, 57% of Permanent Secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of the Shadow Cabinet, 24% of MPs and 12% of the Sunday Times Rich List attended Oxbridge, compared to less than 1% of the public as a whole. The influence of Oxford and Cambridge in respect to the top positions in Britain is extremely disproportionate, to put it mildly.

Oxford, R Pinto 2015

Oxford Trinity College, © R. Pinto, 2015

 

Sectors of entrenched elitism

The preceding analysis demonstrates the extent to which privilege is entrenched in Britain and this advantage tends to cumulate over time, since is generally passed-on from generation to generation. Since Britons generally take pride in living in a meritocratic society, it is worth delving a bit deeper into some sectors to illustrate what this form of elitism means in practice:

  • Parliament: the advantages are even more entrenched than suggested at first sight by the fact that 36% of the cabinet went to independent schools and 59% went to Oxbridge. Out of the 365 Members of Parliament (MPs) 33% went to independent schools (52% of Conservatives, 41% of Liberal Democrats and 10% of Labour) and 24% went to Oxbridge (32% of Conserves, 28% of Liberal Democrats and 17% of Labour). It should be noted that the MP data refer to 2014 and thus the previous Parliament, though there is no reason to assume this has changed dramatically in the current parliamentary intake. The situation is even more extreme in the case of the House of Lords or the Upper House. Half of the Lords attended independent schools (50%), which is seven times more than the UK population as a whole and over a third (38%) of the Lords attended Oxbridge.
  • Civil Service: over half (55%) of Whitehall permanent secretaries (the most senior civil servant charged with running government a department or ministry on a day-to-day basis) attended an independent school, as did 45% of Public body chairs and 34% of Public body CEOs. Public bodies are created to provide public services such as British Rail (BR) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Unsurprisingly, more than half of the same Whitehall permanent secretaries are Oxbridge educated (57%), as are 44% of the Public body chairs and 26% of Public body CEOs.
  • Law: 71% of judges attended an independent school and a further 23% of judges attended a grammar school, which take 4% of the pupils. Thus independent/grammar schools account for a staggering 94% of all judges in Britain. Not only that, but one in seven judges (14%) went to just five independent schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse and St Paul’s Boys. 75% of judges went to Oxbridge. Our judiciary is a highly self-selective group, it seems.
  • Order: the concentration in the army is almost as extreme as for judges and civil servants. Senior armed forces officers were also largely educated in independent schools (62%) and fewer than 1 in 10 (7%) went to comprehensives. But the equivalent in the police services are less concentrated; a mere 22% attended independent schools and 6% went to Oxbridge.
  • Business: Excluding those educated abroad, 41% of British-educated FTSE350 CEOs and six out of 10 of those in the Sunday Times Rich List (60%) were educated privately. Almost half of FTSE350 CEOs (43%) and over a quarter of those on the Sunday Times Rich List attended Russell Group universities (28%), of which 18% and 12% respectively attended Oxbridge.
  • Media: in terms of the other key set of people setting the agenda for the rest of the population, 54% of the Top 100 media professionals (newspaper editors, columnists and broadcasters) are drawn from independent schools and 45% attended Oxbridge. More than two in five newspaper columnists (43%) in the British press attended an independent school; and 47% graduated from Oxbridge. The situation is even more extreme if we add the independent and grammar school categories together (or 11% of the public): 89% of the Top 100 media professionals are from such schools. Looking specifically at the tabloids (a newspaper having pages half the size of those of a standard newspaper, typically popular in style and dominated by headlines, photographs and sensational stories such as The Sun, The Mirror, etc.) 38% of the columnists attended independent schools and 25% attended Oxbridge (and 49% went to a Russell Group institution). 45% of the broadsheet columnists (a newspaper with a large format regarded as more serious and less sensationalist than tabloids such as The Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian) went to independent schools and 57% to Oxbridge. The 1% seems to have cornered the media market too.

Self-selection and group think to the fore

As I was writing this piece, I was reflecting on my long-held belief that British society is meritocratic – where the people holding power are selected on the basis of their ability. I still believe this to be the case. I do not doubt that the elite comprising the 7% or 1% is extremely well-educated or that they hold their powerful, prestigious and well-remunerated positions on the basis of their ability. But they are greatly aided by attending the top schools and facilities that money can buy and abetted by a self-selecting and entrenched Oxbridge network of their ilk. To suggest that there is equality of opportunity in Britain, but not necessarily equality of outcome is not only misleading, it is also plain wrong.

This situation may be broadly meritocratic but it is hardly the same as being fair, right or healthy for a democracy; only a small subset of the population has the resources, contacts and know-how to buy the entry ticket to an independent school (7%) which the gateway to securing a pass to one of the top two universities in the country (1%), which in turn results in access to the most influential, powerful and lucrative professions in Britain. The opportunities and the outcomes are systematically cornered, generation after generation, by the same elites.

The very fact that the report Elitist Britain (2014) was released at all demonstrates that the British Establishment is not too concerned about such information being released. Given how little it has been reported or impacted on policy-making (since they also control most of the levers), I guess they are right.

In any case, this fascinating report makes two further points worth noting. The first is that a lack of diversity in the people who are running the country is a problem in and of itself since certain professions should be representative of the public for reasons of legitimacy. This includes politicians, the media and judiciary.

Secondly, a narrow elite implies serious limits on adult social mobility and the sheer scale of the dominance of certain backgrounds raises questions about the degree to which the composition of the elite really reflects merit, as opposed to know-how combined with know-who.

These are serious concerns but the point that really caught my attention concerns the risk of “group think”:

“Where institutions rely on too narrow a range of people from too narrow a range of backgrounds with too narrow a range of experiences they risk behaving in ways and focussing on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society. Our research shows it is entirely possible for politicians to rely on advisors to advise, civil servants to devise policy solutions and journalists to report on their actions having all studied the same courses at the same universities, having read the same books, heard the same lectures and even being taught by the same tutors.

The penny drops. I finally understand the reason why so many British politicians and journalists are so consistently and systematically (with some exceptions) pro-leaving “Europe” by which they mean the European Union (EU). Their entrenched group think has blinded them to the benefits of being part of the EU and they systematically underestimate the disadvantages of going it alone, thereby risking the country becoming an increasingly isolated Little Britain.

 

 

 


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