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The fall of the meritocracy

Politicians from ordinary backgrounds have become an endangered species

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

I caught the figure strolling towards me out the corner of my eye. At first I thought I was mistaken. Then it nearly took my breath away.

I was standing in the impressive wooden-beamed assembly hall of Paisley Grammar, where I’d gathered at the start of each school day many years before, silent and smartly uninformed, along with 900 other pupils. The current head was explaining how this ancient institution, dating back to the 16th century, was still giving children as fine an education as the one I had enjoyed.

It was then I noticed the policeman coming along the corridor and into the hall, sauntering along as if his presence were as natural as a French or physics teacher. His uniform was clean and tidy. So was his stab vest.

It’s been 35 years since Paisley Grammar was a selective state school dedicated to getting pupils into university or the professions. It’s now what Alastair Campbell would call a ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive. I could see it was catering for a wider range of abilities and that school uniform had become an optional extra. But I wasn’t ready for it having its own policeman with his own wee police station. I was told it’s now quite common in state schools. That didn’t make me any less sad.

I was back at my old school for a BBC documentary on social mobility, asking whether politics had again become the preserve of the privileged and if someone from my ordinary background could still enjoy the same opportunities I had.

It’s an increasingly relevant question. The resignations last week of Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson — boys from council estates who dragged themselves to top political positions through ability and ambition — suggest senior politicos from ordinary backgrounds are an endangered species at Westminster. There are no more Johnsons in Labour’s elite, and very few Coulsons close to Cameron.

As one of the grammar-school generation, I grew up as part of a postwar meritocracy that steadily infiltrated the citadels of power. The public-school-educated still grabbed a disproportionate share of the top jobs. But we were in no doubt that future generations of plain folk would have even more opportunities than we had. It never dawned on us that by the start of the 21st century the meritocracy might come to a grinding halt.

Britain’s great postwar meritocratic experiment was broad-based, but it was in politics that the change was most dramatic. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, one public-school prime minister followed another: Attlee (Haileybury), Churchill (Harrow), then three Etonians, Eden, Macmillan and Home.

The watershed came when a Yorkshire grammar-school boy, Harold Wilson, won the 1964 election. For 33 years after that, every prime minister, through the years of Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major, was educated at a state school.

Nobody thought there would never be another public-school PM – just that it was no longer the default position. The run of state-educated PMs ended with the Fettes-educated Tony Blair in 1997, who nevertheless presided over probably the least Oxbridge, most state-educated cabinet in British history. But deeper forces were already undermining the meritocracy.


With the demise of the grammar schools, the public schoolboys started having their own way again in the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties. Labour remained less posh, but even it has been captured by middle-class professional politicians.

Consider the social pedigree of the leading lights on both front benches today. Cameron, Clegg and Osborne went to private schools whose fees are more than the average annual wage. More than a third of the current Commons was privately educated, three percentage points up on that elected in 2005, reversing a downward trend over several generations.

Twenty went to the same private school (Eton, naturally), of whom eight are in government. That’s right: eight ministers went to the same school. Maybe that’s why a conversation in Downing Street last year about school sports budgets ended up with a discussion about who had played what position in the Eton wall game.

Labour is nowhere near so posh. But the horny-handed sons of toil are no longer in favour; nowadays it pays to be middle-class and to go straight into politics after Oxbridge. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, went to Oxford from affluent north London, graduated in philosophy, politics and economics — or PPE, an apprenticeship scheme for budding pols — and was soon working for Gordon Brown. The defeated David Miliband went to the same Oxford college (Corpus Christi), also did PPE and was soon advising Tony Blair.

The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, is another Oxford man, who also graduated in — yes— PPE and also ended up working for Brown. At Oxford he met his future wife (and current shadow home secretary) Yvette Cooper, which should not be a surprise, because she too was reading PPE.

Let’s recap here. In supposedly modern, meritocratic 21st-century Britain, the Prime Minister, Deputy PM, Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor and the shadow chancellor all went to Oxbridge, three of the five did the same degree and all were privately educated bar Miliband. Oxford is particularly well represented: it’s the alma mater for four of the five. More men from a single college — Magdalen — sit around the Cabinet table than women of any background. It would be hard to argue that today’s political leaders aren’t bright or well educated. They are. ‘Nice but dim’ public schoolboys don’t make it to the top in politics any more. The concern is that the pipeline to the top has once again become too narrow, making politicians unrepresentative of the kind of people we are.

Nobody is clear why this has happened and not many politicians, for all their warm words about social mobility, want to talk about it, as I discovered while making the documentary. Tories are uneasy because it stirs talk of toffs, privilege and class warfare. Labour shies away lest it implies a failure of Labour education policy meant to widen opportunity.

So why has the meritocracy run out of steam? The decline of the trade unions has closed one working-class route into politics, as the absence of Alan Johnsons illustrates. The switch from an industrial to an information society — resulting in the decline of the affluent, aspiring working class — is another reason politics is more middle-class. The matter becomes more contentious when you turn to educational explanations.

Some think it simple: social mobility has declined with the decline of the grammar schools. But comprehensives and the expansion of higher education did widen opportunity for many, which is why more students than ever from ordinary backgrounds are going to university. The problem seems to be at the top end of academic ability, with today’s state schools struggling to compete with even middling private schools, which might explain why the top 20 universities are disproportionately dominated by private schools.

Despite the recent massive investment in schools, the attainment gap between state and private seems as wide as ever — the OECD says the gap is bigger only in Turkey — and it might even be getting wider.

Almost a third of public-school pupils get at least three A-levels at grade A, versus 7.5 per cent of comprehensive pupils, a gap that has doubled since 1998. Over 60 per cent of A-grades in modern languages and half of A-grades in physics go to the private schools, even though they educate only 7 per cent of pupils. Only 30 per cent of comprehensives teach languages — and they do so to only half their pupils, while a quarter of comprehensives don’t have a single specialist physics teacher.

The consequence of these disparities is o
bvious at university level. As more and more pupils apply with a clutch of A-grade credentials, the best universities are demanding A-levels in the toughest subjects to win entry — and if the toughest subjects are increasingly the preserve of the private schools, then perhaps it’s inevitable that they will take so many of the places. Almost half of those doing science, maths and languages at the top 20 universities went to private schools, as did 55 per cent of those doing economics (which I studied as a state-school student at Glasgow).

When I was at Paisley Grammar we were equipped to compete with the private-school kids — and encouraged to do so. The sky was the limit, provided we had ability, ambition and a capacity for hard work.

After my visit to the old school last autumn, I’m not sure that’s still the case. There seemed to be a poverty of ambition. One sixth-former told me: ‘I don’t know anyone who has gone to Oxford or Cambridge or St Andrew’s, and I’d love to go to St Andrew’s — but there’s little chance I’d get in. I don’t know anyone who has got in. It’s called the Scottish Oxford for a reason.’

Of course — and this is peculiar to Britain — if you have a largely egalitarian, non-selective state-school system on the one hand, up against an aggressively selective and highly competitive private-school system on the other, perhaps we should not be surprised if a disproportionate share of the glittering prizes, especially in politics, ends up in the lap of the latter.

The political consensus among Labour, Lib Dems and Tories is that there must be no selection by ability of any kind in state schools, even as private schools go to ever more elaborate lengths to select the best and the brightest. This unusual unanimity has its origins in animosity to the 11-plus, the old passport to the grammar schools, which is widely seen now as too brutal and too early a watershed, consigning those who failed to often (though not always) second-rate secondary moderns.

It’s probably the journalist in me, but I’m naturally suspicious about consensus and always feel an impulse to confront it. I understand why there is no groundswell to return to the 11-plus, but should its shadow blot out debate on any kind of selection by ability? Would it not be possible in the 21st century to devise more sophisticated, more flexible forms of selection which consign nobody to the educational dustbin? Could we not produce a state system that gives as much emphasis to good vocational and technology schools as academic hothouses (as the 1944 Education Act envisaged but never achieved)?

At the moment such questions are beyond the pale of debate in mainstream British politics, which might be a good reason for raising them. Unless we do there’s every chance that highly selective public schools will continue to rule the roost and that current policies popular with politicians, from Blair’s academies to Michael Gove’s free schools, turn out to be just tinkering.

One thing I did learn during the making of this documentary. This is not fundamentally a matter of the poorest 10 per cent trying to get a seat at the table of the other 90 per cent (the poorest have problems way beyond what this article is about). It is about the 90 per cent trying to compete with the most privileged 10 per cent. In a Britain whose politics have become posh once more and could be about to become even posher, the working and middle classes are probably in this together.


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