Top jobs dominated by privately educated and Oxbridge graduates

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The most common pathway into a "highest status" job is attending independent school followed by Oxford or Cambridge.
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Employers should collect and monitor data on the socio-economic background of their staff, it has been recommended, after a report found top executives and politicians are five-times more likely to have been privately educated than the general population.

According to The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, two-fifths (39%) of those in “top” positions – such as senior judges, ministers and diplomats – attended an independent school, compared with just 7% across the UK as a whole.

This had created a “power gap” which, according to Social Mobility Commission chair Dame Martina Milburn, needed to be closed to ensure those at the top of business and politics could relate to those they are representing.

The bodies’ Elitist Britain 2019 report looked at the educational backgrounds of 5,000 leading figures across nine broad sectors: politics, business, media, Whitehall and public bodies, public servants, local government, the creative industries, women and sport.

It found private school alumni represented most of those working as senior judges (65%); civil service permanent secretaries (59%); Lords (57%); and Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats (52%).

Oxbridge attendees represented 71% of senior judges; 57% of Cabinet ministers; 56% of permanent secretaries and 51% of diplomats.

The media also had some of the highest numbers of privately educated staff: 43% of news editors and broadcasters went to an independent school, as did 44% of newspaper columnists. A third of newspaper columnists went to both a private school and an Oxbridge university.

Women are also underrepresented in powerful roles, making up just 5% of FTSE 350 chief executives, 16% of local government leaders and 24% of senior judges.

The most common pathway into a “highest status” job is attending independent school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, making up 17% of the whole group, according to the report.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations to improve social mobility, including:

  • Ensuring that employers gather data on the social-economic backgrounds of their staff, in the same way they do for gender and ethnicity. This should include parental qualifications and occupation, type of school attended and eligibility for free school meals
  • Enacting the “socio-economic duty” clause of the Equality Act 2010 and obligating public bodies to give due regard to how they can reduce the impact of socio-economic disadvantage
  • Tackling the financial barriers that prevent entry to certain professions – including unpaid internships
  • Openly advertising internships and entry level jobs to help people from under-represented groups into roles
  • Introducing contextual recruitment practices that consider a candidates’ success based on whether they have attended an underperforming school or have come from a disadvantaged area.

Earlier this year, the Social Mobility Commission urged government departments to become “model employers” when it came to reducing inequality. It also raised concerns about the impact automation could have on social mobility.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “As well as academic achievement an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and team work which are vital to career success.

“The key to improving social mobility at the top is to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “For too long our top professions have been a closed club, dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite who attended the same private schools.

“The old boys’ network and the old school tie still hold back talented and hard-working people from less privileged backgrounds.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “For too long professions like law, politics and journalism have been dominated by independently schooled people.

“By making sure that our state schools offer a comparable education to private schools, we will drive down these inequalities.”

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