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Our unfair schools system needs an overhaul

Britain’s most influential people are five times more likely to have studied at a private school than the general population, according to the Social Mobility Commission, an excellent body that is absurdly underpowered to do much about the most class-ridden society in the advanced world. We seem to be drifting towards a second upstairs-downstairs Edwardian era of inequality.

A quick glance at the backgrounds of the two contenders to be Britain’s next prime minister leaves little doubt that, as the commission now reports, Britain is still run by the products of its fee-charging schools. Boris Johnson (Eton, classics at Balliol College Oxford, former foreign secretary) is up against Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse, PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, now foreign secretary). The winner’s predecessor but one, David Cameron, also did PPE at Oxford, and went to Eton. If the Conservative Party is dedicated to opportunity for all, as it is often claims, it has a funny way of showing it.

Mr Cameron’s predecessor but one, Tony Blair, went to St John’s College, Oxford to do law, having attended the fee-charging Fettes College in Edinburgh. The public schools might be expected to populate the upper echelons of the Tory party, the royal family, the aristocracy, the law, the civil and diplomatic service, business, the media, academia and even certain sports such as cricket or rugby union, but they are also peppered around the top of the Labour Party, including the leader Jeremy Corbyn and his press secretary Seamus Milne.

Though not entirely novel, this pattern of privilege is getting worse. Just as inequality of outcomes – disparities in wealth and income – are growing more severe, so are inequalities of opportunity. Given that it costs money to pay the fees required by the top public schools (for example £41,709 a year at Winchester) and to support a university student, inequality of wealth seems to have a fairly obvious causal link to blighted life chances.

It is always, then, sobering to ponder the vice-like grip the public schools still exert on the ancient universities and the liberal professions. It seems almost unshakeable. The nation takes it for granted in a way that it didn’t in the first few decades after the Second World War, when agitation for social chance and egalitarianism seems to have reached its peak.

No doubt, as ever, the likes of Westminster and St Paul’s endow their pupils with an excellent education which gives them a decisive edge over rivals form state schools – but that is precisely the point. Parents who are in a position to do so – and many make some personal sacrifices to get their boy or girl in – are eager to buy their offspring an unfair advantage in life.

That, though, is the problem for the great majority who thereby are dealt diminished life chances and therefore are prevented from contributing to society to their full potential. To add insult to injury, the public schools are still operating under a questionable charitable status – tax breaks by another name. Society thus suffers from this exorbitant privilege in many insidious ways.

It is not good for society, for social cohesion or for the economy to have the best jobs nabbed by the children of the already rich, creating a vicious cycle of advantage and privilege. That much is familiar. After an expensive education, The Bank of Mum and Dad then helps them get onto the housing ladder, and when they come to have a family of their own the wealth cascades down to another generation. That much is obvious: what is less clear is what to do about it.

The improvements in school standards in recent decades seem to have made little real difference to the life chances of pupils in the state sector. Grammar schools and free schools, touted as ways out of poverty for clever kids, seem most often to be a middle-class racket.

One obvious approach would be to honour the promises so often made by politicians to place education at the top of their agenda – something that Mr Johnson has recently pledged to do. Obviously investment in education has to be balanced with the need for sustainable public finances, which is why Theresa May’s hasty late push for a taxpayer-funded “legacy” in education is so ill-advised. But the general point is valid: well-resourced schools, with well-paid teachers and motivational heads can transform a generation’s prospects.

Brexit or not, Britain will have to rely on its wits more than ever in the coming decade. It cannot rely on a tiny base of public schoolboys and schoolgirls presiding grandly over an undereducated lumpen proletariat acting as their domestic servants to maintain its global economic status. Bright children from poorer homes cannot be left to languish, their talents wasted, and the nation the worse off for it. That is not how they do things in, say, Germany, China or South Korea.

In terms of more immediate measures, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission suggest other comparatively low-cost ways that universities, employers and the professions can help to bridge the opportunity gap. Better internships, making more effort to seek out suitable applicants from poorer backgrounds, and flexibility of entrance requirements can make some difference, not least by building representation and offering examples and role models for others to follow – as has so long been the case with the public schools and the best state schools.

In many ways, indeed, the public schools, over many centuries, have shown how traditions, sporting and academic competition and links with universities and business can enhance their performance. State schools need the backing and encouragement to do the same.