Any parents considering Dollar Academy are invited to take their car along its long driveway and park outside what looks like a palace. When I first did so with my parents, I told them that it all looked ridiculously posh. My mum flew into a rage. ‘Posh’ was a word of bigotry, she said, and one I’d best not use if I was going to survive a day in boarding school. My dad left school aged 15 and eventually joined the RAF, which was kindly paying for me to board while he was posted to Cyprus. He’d have loved such an opportunity, and wanted me to see it for what it was — and to forget any class-war language that I might have picked up in my old comprehensive in the Highlands.
I needn’t have worried. The stonkingly rich tended to avoid this (then) relatively low-budget school. The boarders tended to be the sons of farmers, traditionally sent to live away from home for a few years before going back and settling down. Or of Scottish servicemen who were keen to save their teenagers from being pinged between the Scottish and English education systems. All of us were at school just at the right time — before being privately educated started to be seen as an embarrassment. Which David Cameron’s government seems intent on turning into a stigma.
If he survives this month’s referendum, the Prime Minister intends to work on his legacy and he wants social mobility to be his bequest to the nation. His latest idea (or rather, the latest idea he has stolen from Ed Miliband) is that would-be civil servants should undergo a poshness test. The premise is simple: it’s not enough to help those from deprived backgrounds. True social mobility means identifying the children of the wealthy.
Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister and close ally of George Osborne, last week published a list of questions for civil service ‘workforce and applicants’. They’d be asked about ‘their parents’ professions, qualifications, and income or wealth’, or the postcode in which they lived aged 14. Even this, of course, can be deceptive: Eton disguises itself under a Slough postcode. So the applicants will be asked to state the ‘type’ of school attended, presumably to reveal grammar-school alumni. Hancock’s list of questions goes on: were you ever a refugee? Did you end up in a care home? Was your family ever poor enough for you to qualify for free school meals?
What the civil service would start, Hancock hopes other employers will follow: he says Deloitte, Accenture, O2, Linklaters, KPMG, Barclays and others are on board with his general agenda. The BBC says it will start asking new employees about family background. So this kind of interrogation — ‘When did you last see your father’s payslip?’ — might become the norm. Hancock insists no one will be marked down, but it’s hard to see what the point of the inquisition would be if that were the case. William Waldegrave, now provost of Eton, has threatened to resign the Conservative whip in the Lords in protest at what he sees as systematic inverted snobbery.
All this, Hancock admits, is quite a shift in how Britain does things — but we ought not to be squeamish. ‘We British don’t always like to discuss things like our parents’ background,’ he says. Such concerns, he fears, are impeding social mobility: if his civil service is to become less posh, it needs to ask difficult questions. As he puts it, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure.’
In his defence, no one can deny that Britain has a social mobility problem. The Sutton Trust has a set of figures that it regularly updates to remind everyone of the issue. Private schools educate just 7 per cent of pupils, yet account for 71 per cent of top army officers, 61 per cent of top doctors, 51 per cent of senior journalists (yes, guilty). And so on. Successive studies have shown that social mobility has stagnated or even slid into reverse.
Employers have been responding to this without any prodding from the government. At The Spectator, for example, we ask interns not to send their CVs or details of their education — we just set an aptitude test. There’s plenty employers can do to promote social mobility: stop taking interns as favours to contacts; work with groups like the Social Mobility Foundation to grant summer placements to promising teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Helping people up has always been the British way. But knocking people down is an entirely new development.
It would certainly be a historic change for a UK civil service that has long prided itself on its meritocracy; not since the early Victorian era have social criteria been used in the hiring of government employees. In those days, the ‘right sort of chap’ was sought and promoted, and the nice-but-dim nephews of the elite ended up running Whitehall. Gladstone wanted to end this practice, and the Northcote--Trevelyan reforms of 1854 swept it all away, determining that recruitment should be done via open exams and promotion should be on merit, not seniority or parentage. Back then, this was a fairly radical idea.
Peter Hennessy, the constitutional historian, sees this as Whitehall’s Glorious Revolution: ‘the greatest single governing gift of the 19th to the 20th century’. Well-established British companies started to follow suit, and a world power arose.
Which is why it’s so shocking, now, to see the government move away from merito-cracy, which it used to champion, and lurch back to an era where parental wealth and the poshness of one’s school are once again factors. To be sure, any discrimination would be loaded on the other side now, but until recently most governments had sought to confront prejudice. Now, a Tory government is seeking to formalise its use.
The power of social stigma to shape society has long fascinated David Cameron. Drunk-driving, he always argued, ended not due to any laws but because it came to be seen as socially unacceptable. So modern conservatives should refrain from passing laws or diktats, but should instead concentrate on trying to shape social norms. This explains his efforts to shame Oxford University into accepting more ethnic-minority students, and even to cow men into staying with their families. A few years ago, he said that Britain should be made a ‘genuinely hostile’ place for runaway fathers, who needed the ‘full force of shame heaped upon them’.
Heaping shame upon people can be a tricky business. If a colleague at work separates from his family, is it appropriate (as the Prime Minister suggested) to ‘ram home’ to him the wickedness of his action? How can anyone be sure who’s to blame? And when it comes to those who have been privately educated, how sheepish should they — we — be made to feel? The boy sent to prep school at the age of seven had no more say in his circumstances than a boy brought up by a single mother in a housing estate. Both sorts of boys stood for the Tory leadership in 2005, and Cameron beat David Davis. Because he was the better candidate.
While the subject of private education obsesses Westminster, the voters seem more relaxed: if such inverted snobbery were a factor of British life, then David Cameron and his long list of Etonian friends would not have been returned with an overall majority. With politics, as with so much else, the public asks the simple question: who is best for the job? Who can best fix the problems that Britain faces?
Recognising today’s problems — rather than yesterday’s ones — would be a start. The usual statistics — about 74 per cent of judges being privately educated and so on — reflect education as it was several decades ago, not how it is today. Now, if you compare the A-level results of the best-performing state school to those of the best-performing private school, the state school wins. The same is true if you compare the tenth, 50th, or even 500th best from each sector.
So the success of Tory education reform has helped render Matt Hancock’s witch-hunt obsolete: parents are today more likely to find academic excellence in the state sector than in the fee-paying sector. That’s if they live close enough to those schools to get in. Because the real inequality lies in the scandalous way in which the richest state-school pupils receive the best education and the poorest, the worst. Last year a study for the Centre for Social Justice (on whose advisory board I sit) found that in the wealthiest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods, three-quarters of the children at the local schools get five good GCSE passes. In the poorest, fewer than half do.
If David Cameron wants to make social justice his legacy, he can accelerate his own school reforms — and maybe draw attention to the attainment gap within state schools. He might also discuss the marriage gap, and how the couple penalty imposed by his welfare system makes things worse. When he entered Parliament, those at the top of the socio-economic tree (so-called Class 1) were 25 per cent more likely to be married than those at the bottom (Class 7). That has grown to 50 per cent. Children in richer neighbourhoods are far more likely to have a father at home.
Rich and poor deserve the same protection from crime, yet no study has been conducted into the extent to which they do. It wouldn’t be hard. The Spectator asked Declan Clowry, an Oxford academic, to delve into the figures. He found that those in the poorest neighbourhoods are twice as likely to fall victim to crime as those in the richest. More worryingly, his research also revealed that the recent decline in crime has been far steeper in the wealthier areas — even though there was far less crime in those to begin with.
Inequality in state education, levels of family breakdown, unequal protection from crime: these are all factors of social decay in Britain. And none of these will be addressed by the proposed ‘ongoing monitoring’ of the social pedigree of employees.
There’s a phrase in Scots: ‘Ah kent yer faither’ — I knew your father. It sums up a mindset: don’t think you’re special. You may have been successful, but we know what sort of family you came from. Now Cameron’s government is proposing that companies keep records of what kind of people their employees’ parents were.
Not so long ago, a Tory MP explained what was wrong with this. ‘Line one, rule one of being a Conservative,’ he said: ‘it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going.’
This was David Cameron, speaking to the 2012 Tory party conference. He was right first time. His purge of the posh is precisely the kind of social warfare that voters were offered, and rejected, at the last general election. There is indeed a mountain of work to do on social mobility: a state-school system to transform, welfare reform to complete, a crime gap to close. A radical conservative agenda is ready and waiting. All it needs is a Prime Minister with the imagination, energy and courage to seize it.