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Social Mobility: Public Schools

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the degree to which those educated at public school disproportionately occupy senior positions in both public and private sectors in the United Kingdom; and whether they have plans to reduce any imbalance.

My Lords, improving social mobility is the principal goal of this Government’s social policy. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was established to monitor the progress of government employers, the professions and universities in improving social mobility. Current evidence shows that, while improvements are being made in some areas, there is still much work to be done.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which I think means no. I have two supplementary questions. First, would he not agree with the recent and widely reported observation by Sir John Major to the South Norfolk Conservative Association on 8 November:

“In every 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”?

Secondly, would he accept that to give tax relief to public schools as charities is also truly shocking? Charities are supposed to be about assistance from the rich to the poor, not from the poor to the rich.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. He quotes Sir John Major; let me offer him a quote from Alan Milburn in November. In responding to criticism about why the previous Government had not done more to advance social mobility under their 13 years in office, he said that it is,

“wrong … to argue this is the consequence of the actions of any one government. Deep-rooted … and flatlining mobility have been decades in the making”.

That is why this Government have introduced the pupil premium, which is targeted at disadvantaged pupils; free childcare; and an increasing number of apprenticeships. As for the noble Lord’s point about charity status, that is for the Charity Commission. Of course, it has to demonstrate that there is a public benefit to that status, and I know that many independent schools take that very seriously and forge many partnerships with schools in the state sector as well.

My Lords, the Minister and, indeed, the House and the whole country know that public schools are not charities. Their existence and treatment as charities brings charity law into disrepute. Why do we not end that arrangement, and if we need to subsidise private education—many might well want that; I do not know—transfer responsibility for subsidy from charity law to the Finance Act? Then we can have a full debate in Parliament, in the House of Commons when it is dealing with Finance Act issues, on what that level of subsidy should be.

The noble Lord raises an interesting point which begs the question of why, if that was the key issue to be addressed, his Government did not tackle that over their 13 years. The point is that this is intergenerational; it stretches over a long time and the solutions will take a long time coming. The problems have been a long time coming, too, and this Government are focusing particularly on the work of people such as Graham Allen on early intervention in specialising and targeting the help at the poorer families to redress that balance.

Does the Minister agree that until we tackle growing inequalities, we cannot hope to tackle social inequality? When you have a situation in which more than 60% of young black men in this country are unemployed, how on earth are we going to achieve social mobility?

My noble friend raises a very important point, which is that the route back into social mobility comes through the place of work. That is why we are opening up 1.5 million apprenticeships and why bearing down on unemployment—it is a fact that we are now in the 17th month of falling unemployment among the young—is so critical to raising the prospects of the young people, as we so want to do.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece.

Even where two similarly qualified graduates attended the same university, what happens afterwards is that the privately schooled graduate is 8% more likely to get a top job than someone from the state schools—even at that stage. What are the Government doing with their own recruitment policies to make sure that that sort of unfairness does not appear within the Civil Service?

That is a very good question and I know that many people in government—principally the Deputy Prime Minister—are focusing on how to make that more accessible through the internship programme, through ensuring broader and fairer access and through the business compact programme, where more employers are encouraged to sign up and have fairer and more inclusive recruitment policies. It has to be said that it is not just the Government having this problem. It runs right across society and is in the media, in corporations, in medicine and in the judiciary, all of which need to act to make sure that their access policies are as fair as possible to all.

My Lords, if, as has been conclusively demonstrated, the private education system is better than the public one and provides a portal into all sorts of social and economic advantages, surely we should be trying to get more and more private education, and more and more people drawn into it from those classes which are at present excluded. The way to do that is not to cut off the funding but to increase it.

My noble friend has great knowledge and insight in this area—and so do I. In my experience the greatest difference between our leading independent schools and the inner-city comprehensives, one of which I attended, is the level of expectations not only among the teachers or parents but, chiefly, among the pupils themselves as to what they can actually achieve. That is what we need to improve.

My Lords, in 1999 the previous Government made sure that more than 700 hereditary Lords could no longer sit in this House. Now then, can the Minister tell me how many Peers on the Conservative Benches came from Eton?

In this debate, which is about raising the opportunities of the poorest in our society, it does not help to have a vindictive or negative view of people who have had the privilege of great education in this country. We want to ensure that that quality of education and that level of ambition and expectation are spread to all, irrespective of school attended.