It is interesting that Ed Miliband has chosen to highlight the fact that he went to a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ in his party conference speech and broadcast this week. It is a clear attempt to illustrate the difference between him and the ‘posh boys’ in the coalition. No doubt his advisors see political mileage in reinforcing the point that the cabinet is stacked full of old Etonians whose experiences are a million miles from the lives of ordinary people. However what it really does is highlight just how out of touch our political class is from the vast majority of people.
I doubt very much that just because Miliband went to a comprehensive the public will see him as a man of the people.
Like the Milibands I also went to a comprehensive (just a mile or so away from his school as it happens) but that fact alone is not enough to say that our backgrounds are the same as all those millions of ‘normal hard working families’. It is highly disingenuous to imply that everyone who goes to a state school is typical and does not come from a privileged background. My parents, like the Milibands, believed in state education and sending us to comprehensive schools was a choice based on political preference. And while I believe that choice was a laudable one, it is very different to the vast majority of children who go to state schools.
The fact is that our political leaders’ educations, like their backgrounds, are far removed from the experience of those they represent. Why else can the fact that Ed went to a comprehensive be considered worth making an issue of? If his own party, and the Conservatives and Lib Dems, we’re not full of privately educated people we would not be subjected to sepia shots of Haverstock School.
Around 7% of the population go to private schools, but 35% of our current MPs were educated at fee paying schools. Less than half our MPs went to comprehensive schools (22% went to selective grammar schools). A staggering 20 MPs went to Eton. Admittedly on 15% of Labour MPs went to private school, but that’s still more than twice the national average.
And it doesn’t stop there….
70% of High Court judges went to private school and 54% of chief executives of the FTSE 100 companies went to private schools.
The facts speak for themselves. Social mobility and inequality are linked and the UK is one of the least socially mobile countries in Europe and one of the most unequal, as this infographic from the Guardian Datablog shows.
The upper echelons of our society are dominated by people who went to private schools. Some have suggested we now have a classless society, but perhaps someone forgot to tell those at the top. The evidence speaks for itself – pay for your children’s education and they are far more likely to become an MP, business leader, judge or find success in some other prestigious and high earning career. Given the strong link between the earnings of parents and their children, we are simply allowing privilege and wealth to pass from one generation to the next.
I believe wholeheartedly in comprehensive schooling. Perhaps Ed Miliband does to. But if he really wants to show the public that his commitment runs deeper than political point scoring then he needs to find ways to tackle the inherent inequality in education that currently exists. That’s not an easy fight to take on. There’s huge vested interest (and deep pockets) in maintaining the privileged position of private schools, but taking it on would silence critics who ask when we will get to hear what Miliband stands for.