End dominance of private school elite, says Major

Prime Minister David Cameron with members of the Cabinet. Picture: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron with members of the Cabinet. Picture: PA
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MORE needs to be done to boost social mobility and end the “truly shocking” dominance of the privately educated in British public life, according to former prime minister Sir John Major.

Sir John said too many top jobs were occupied by those who come from the affluent middle classes and have attended independent schools.

The state-educated former PM, who left school at 16, spoke out in a speech to Conservative Party members at the South Norfolk constituency.

His comments were last night echoed by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, who tweeted that the “corridors of power should reflect society”.

In remarks that will put pressure on Eton-educated Prime Minister David Cameron, Sir John reportedly said: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.

“To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

Mr Cameron has faced claims that he has surrounded himself with people from similarly privileged families and educational backgrounds.

But Sir John pinned the blame for a collapse in social mobility on Labour, which he said left a “Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration”.

“I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost,” he said.

“Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born.

“We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them. And it isn’t going to happen magically.”

Asked whether Mr Cameron shared Sir John’s concerns about the predominance of privately educated people in public life, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a regular Westminster press briefing: “At the heart of this is the importance of building what the Prime Minister has described as an ‘aspiration nation’.

“As the Prime Minister has said, what counts is not where you come from but where you are going. That’s why we have put education reform and welfare reform at the heart of government policy. The prime minister is saying we need to unleash and unlock the promise in everybody.”

The spokesman was unable to say when Mr Cameron last met Sir John, but said: “He speaks to Sir John pretty regularly and meets him from time to time. I’m sure they discuss a wide range of things.”

However, John Edward, director for the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said criticism of the independent sector was unfair.

“All this makes an assumption that people going into independent schools and coming out are part of a preordained, homogeneous group that is going to do well,” he said.

“There’s never any discussion that it might be the schools that have prepared people to be interested in or equipped them for public life.

“Everybody makes assumptions about the sector partly based on what happens down south and the idea that everyone is educated in remote boarding schools. In fact, the vast majority of our kids go to urban day schools.”

Sir John touched on several other issues facing the Conservative party in his speech, suggesting Labour leader Ed Miliband’s adoption of the one nation party mantra was “absurd”.

Sir John said the Conservative Party could win the 2015 general election, “but only if we pull together”, saying internal criticism could be productive but should be kept private.

“Public criticism is destructive. Take it from me. Political parties who are divided and torn simply do not win general elections,” he said in a nod to the internal divisions which dominated his own premiership.

On one issue that has caused grassroots dissent, gay marriage, he urged people to accept that times had changed, warning the row was “toxic”.

“We may be unsettled by [the changes], but David Cameron and his colleagues have no choice but to deal with this new world. They cannot, Canute-like, order it to go away, because it won’t,” he said.

He also recommended a less confrontational approach to the UK Independence Party.

“We don’t need to make personal attacks on Ukip,” he said. “Many of the Ukip supporters are patriotic Britons who fear their country is changing. It is far more productive to expose the follies in their policies.”

So should we applaud private education?

Hugh Reilly: No

As epiphany moments go, Sir John Major’s shock on discovering that a privately educated elite still runs Britain is right up there with Montezuma realising the Conquistadors had not come to Mexico on a cultural exchange visit.

About 5 per cent of children in Scotland enjoy the privileges and nepotism, sorry, networking opportunities, that flow from attending schools where a healthy bank balance trumps an intelligent brain. Sure, bursaries are doled out to the boys and girls of the deserving poor, but it’s mere window-dressing. Charity hand-outs to a few impoverished mites help deflect attention away from the private school tentacles that have taken hold in every key aspect of Scottish society.

For example, natural justice demands that an accused is judged by a jury of his peers. However, should he be convicted, the criminal will almost certainly be sentenced by a private school old boy. Some 71 per cent of our quaintly dressed, wig-wearing judges received their education privately. Amazingly, a third of them were drawn from just three education establishments: George Watson’s, Edinburgh Academy and Glenalmond. It’s a similar story in medicine and dentistry.

On finishing their primary education, my children went to the local comprehensive, an excellent school. However, some of their friends were dispatched to St Aloysius, Glasgow’s private school for cash-rich Catholics. My kids and their mates ended up with roughly the same SQA qualifications, but I’m certain the other parents believe they got value for money, thanks to the web of high-profile contacts made.

Apologists of fee-paying schools push the line that it’s a matter of choice, as if a binman could have sent his kid to George Heriot’s if only he had worked that little bit harder or stopped smoking. The existence of private schools throws sand in the eyes of the country’s supposed meritocracy.

• Hugh Reilly is a columnist for The Scotsman and a former teacher.

Rod Grant: Yes

Sir John Major’s assertion certainly resonates with me. I completely understand why there is a frustration at the surprising iniquity between the low numbers who actually attend independent schools and the high percentage of government ministers who have been independently educated.

Clearly, as the headmaster of an independent school, I endorse the aims and aspirations of the independent sector as a whole, but this value has not emanated from some politicised, elitist view of educational privilege. I wish all schools were independent, free from the shackles of local authority intervention and free from the political will of governments that often have very little understanding of how educational establishments actually work. The independent sector tends to do well in the data-free environ which concentrates on building character and developing skills, because essentially we are free from political promulgations. We can pick and choose what we wish to implement or discard. This leads to a commonsense approach that has, at its very heart, the pupils’ best interests.

Scotland has a general mistrust of independent schools because they are often seen as seats of elitism or privilege, but that is a caricature of the reality. In my own school, over a quarter of the pupils receive financial assistance, which means that I have pupils from all social and economic backgrounds. Our schools should reflect the society in which they operate. Just as I favour independence for Scotland, I also favour independence within education. I have worked in both sectors and I have been educated in both sectors. What is different is that the management and leadership of an independent school is not bound by the political will of the day. We are in charge of our destiny and what we want, more than anything else, is success for our pupils.

• Rod Grant is the headmaster of Clifton Hall School.


The Scotsman cartoon: Sir John Major and education