If children from poor backgrounds are to reach top jobs they need access to the best schools
Many of those who govern us and make the decisions that affect our lives are drawn from a narrow talent pool. Nearly a third of new parliamentary candidates with winnable seats in May were privately educated, and the new House of Commons is unlikely be any more representative than the current parliament. At the same time, more than half of our top judges, medics, journalists and city bosses have enjoyed a similar education.
Only 7 per cent of the population has been privately educated, yet four in ten places at Oxford and Cambridge go to independent school pupils. That’s why social mobility must be more than an aspiration in the forthcoming election. It must be an agenda for action.
There has been some progress in recent years, with a creditable commitment to narrowing the school attainment and higher education access gaps between rich and poor. But too little has been done to improve access at the top, whether to our best schools or our leading universities. For state schools, social selection means that the top 500 comprehensives (of 3,000 nationally) take just half the national average number of disadvantaged pupils, as admissions catchments depend largely on housing affordability. Entry to the 164 grammar schools correlates closely with family income. For private day schools, fees averaging £12,500 a year exclude the vast majority of families.
Access to good schools, with their better exam results, dramatically improves your chances of going to a top university: those from a rich neighbourhood are nine times more likely to go to a top university than those from a poor one.
That’s why we need a real commitment to social mobility in the parties’ manifestos. There should be use of random allocation for urban schools, and more outreach and fairer admissions tests by grammar schools. Students need better subject and careers advice at school, to access good universities and apprenticeships. Schools should do more for their most able students, too, building on our Sutton Trust summer schools for sixth formers and programmes for able 12 to 16-year-olds.
All these measures can make a difference. But one reform could transform social mobility at the top: opening up the best independent day schools on the basis of ability rather than ability to pay.
We have already shown that this can work in practice, during a seven-year trial at Belvedere, an independent girls’ day school in Liverpool. With the Girls’ Day Schools Trust, we turned an elite school into one where 30 per cent of the students, from disadvantaged homes, paid nothing; 40 per cent, from middle-income families, paid partial fees; and the rest paid full fees. We recruited across Merseyside, and while entry was selective, we made allowance for the girls’ home and school backgrounds.
An independent evaluation by Buckingham University found academic standards improved and it was a happy place for girls of all backgrounds. With parents paying almost half the fees, the cost per pupil was less than at the average state school.
Belvedere provides us with a national blueprint. Nearly 90 leading independent day schools have said they would join such an “open access” scheme, including St Paul’s boys school, King Edward’s Birmingham and Manchester Grammar.
Last year, the Social Market Foundation showed not only that privately educated students earn more than their state-educated peers, it also calculated that open access could be introduced at a cost to the taxpayer of £215 million a year to benefit more than 40,000 able students whose parents would not otherwise be able to afford it.
Open access has its backbench supporters in both main parties. But their leaders remain sceptical, making three main objections. First, admissions would remain selective and they don’t want more selection. But this would democratise rather than extend selection. Second, all the places are not free, as in state schools. If the government wished to pay full fees, I wouldn’t object. But in these austere times, open access is an affordable alternative. And, third, we should focus on improving other schools. Of course we should, but we must do both if we’re serious about social mobility.
Abolishing the academic apartheid between independent and state schools is crucial if people are to succeed on merit rather than money. I hope the MPs elected in May — especially those who enjoyed a first-class education themselves — will embrace our practical proposals to open up top positions in Britain.
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation