In an article published by the Guardian, it has been highlighted that Russell Group universities have been vastly missing equality targets designed to encourage more disadvantaged pupils to take up places. Indeed, between 2002 and 2011 more than half of new places at these institutions were taken by privately educated pupils, who number just 7% of the student population as a whole. If we combine this news with recent stories regarding the infamous Eton scholarship question- seemingly preparing thirteen year-old boys for their future in public office- and the information that Westminster school is auctioning internships to the highest bidders, it could be said that ‘flatlining’ social mobility, as suggested by former Labour MP and cabinet minister Alan Milburn, is a somewhat optimistic assessment.
In relation to higher education, and the government’s social mobility commission has warned that the UK’s top universities are becoming less and less socially representative. It has consequently urged these institutions to consider looking at the background of students as part of their application process, with the possibility of offering lower entry requirements to more disadvantaged pupils. These suggestions have also been backed up by the Sutton Trust, who identify that five elite schools sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than nearly two-thirds of the entire state sector. Nevertheless, these proposals face an uphill battle against individuals such as Dr Martin Stephen, who argued in the Telegraph last August that accepting individuals with lower grades into Oxbridge would turn these ‘magical’ institutions into ‘battery units’, insisting that ‘elitism’ should not be regarded as a swear word. Measures to increase social mobility within our education system also first have to be scrutinised and approved by politicians and journalists- many of whom hold their positions of power through the system that these measures seek to destroy.
David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson, Jo Johnson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rupert Harrison (Osborne’s chief economics advisor), Ed Llewellyn (Cameron’s chief of staff), Oliver Letwin (Cabinet Office minister) and George Young (Chief Whip) are all old boys of some of the most elitist public schools in the country, as are James Landale (BBC), Newton Dunn (the Sun) and Patrick Hennessy (the Telegraph) whose jobs it is to scrutinise their policies. These are individuals who have been brought up sitting comfortably at the zenith of our strict social hierarchy, and have benefitted from its continued existence; any policies to deconstruct this hierarchy will surely therefore be looked upon with innate suspicion, even if not intentionally so.
“[Eton] is a school that is dedicated to certain idea of public service, and always has been.” This was the notion expounded by Jesse Norman to the New Statesman in an interview featured last month. A notion highlighted further just days later as details of one of the scholarship questions asked to Eton applicants seeped into the press. A question which asked these thirteen year-old boys to envision themselves as Prime Minister, and explain how they would justify the murder of civilians in order to curb protests, in a way which expressed that the action was both necessary and moral. Laurie Penny has thus suggested how this question perfectly symbolises how members of these privileged institutions are educated about public service- how they are trained in the art of defending the indefensible to maintain order. I for one would also be surprised if even a single state school engaged in such a form of education, perhaps demonstrating why the state educated have been seen as superfluous to Cameron’s current Conservative administration.
Moreover, there has also been controversy regarding the sale of internships by Westminster school, the former school of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and one of the most famous, and now infamous, public schools in the country. Indeed, this institution, which charges annual fees of more than £21,000, has offered exclusive work placements to its pupils in exchange for cash to invest in new capital projects and a bursary programme. A spokesman for Nick Clegg has since emerged to express the leader of the Liberal Democrat’s condemnation for these actions, as has a letter from a group of MPs to the school, stating that "By offering opportunities solely on the basis of wealth, you are explicitly favouring privilege, and excluding the vast majority of young people who don't have the financial support or family connections that those at Westminster school already have." Nevertheless, even though this disapproval has been articulated by many high-profile figures, it still leaves one wondering how many others think in the same way as the previously cited Dr Martin Stephen and approve of such elitism, and alternatively how many others express condemnation, whilst practicing elitist policies.
In the UK we admire the pomp, eccentricity and gallantry that our elitist public schools embody- through nationally symbolic figures such as Boris Johnson. The question we have to ask ourselves in the future is whether the superiority of these institutions seriously harms the ability of the rest of us to get on in the world. The past few months have highlighted the scope of our social immobility, it is up to us whether we accept or fight it.
By Sam Bright