Lifting the socio-economic glass ceiling

The Sutton Trust pioneered research into the educational backgrounds of those at the top of the United Kingdom’s professions when our first report, on the legal profession, was published a decade ago. Since then, we have studied a variety of fields: from members of the House of Commons, to leading news journalists, to those most prominent in the arts.

Our latest report, Leading People 2016, maps the educational backgrounds of leading figures in ten areas: the military, medicine, politics, civil service, journalism, business, law, music, film and Nobel prizes.

What will come as no surprise to many is that top of our country’s professional life remains disproportionately populated by alumni of independent schools. In the military, for example, 71 per cent of the top officers in the country – two-star generals and above – attended independent schools, while only 12 per cent went to comprehensive schools. This proportion is slightly less than the country’s top judges – high court and appeals court – of whom 74 per cent attended independent schools. In journalism, 51 per cent of leading print journalists were educated privately and less than one-in-five went to comprehensives which educate 88 per cent of the population today.

We also found that top award-winning British actors are over twice as likely to have been educated at an independent school as award-winning British pop musicians – 42 per cent of top Bafta winners attended an independent school, compared to 19 per cent of Brit award winners.

These stark figures tell us we are missing out on an awful lot of talent from the 93 per cent of the population that is state educated. They also beg the question as to whether the professions are looking hard enough to identify talent from a wider pool.

There are economic, cultural and societal benefits to opening up the UK’s top professions to a more diverse talent pool. Many firms and industries have recognised this and there has been a welcome focus on diversity and professional access in recent years, especially in the legal profession and the civil service.

But how can we make sure the top of British society becomes more representative of the general population?

First, we need a better understanding of why those with particular educational backgrounds remain at the top. Wider research has found that while private school and Oxbridge students oproften have higher academic achievement, it is not just grades that determine future career success. These students often have the social skills and advantages – from higher aspiration and greater extra-curricular opportunities, to easier access to professional networks – that precipitate career success.

Second, we need to make sure that all young people have access to high quality teaching and schools so that they can access the best universities that open up so many professional doors.

Our Pathways and summer school programmes continue to play their part in lifting the socio-economic glass ceiling that remains such a feature of our professional elites. But if we are to have any hope of improving social mobility in the UK, we need to see a concerted effort from schools, universities, employers and government alike.

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Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust

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