Welcome to the meritocracy

Bristol grammar School - Main School
Great Hall, Bristol Grammar School

Bristol Grammar School – catchy strapline: “rich[ !!!], vibrant and a real community, BSG is full of possibility, large but never impersonal” – is currently trumpeting its latest result in getting 17 of its students offers at Oxbridge colleges.

This keeps this leading independent school firmly in that tight-knit pack of 100 elite schools – 80 fee-paying, 18 selective state grammars and two that are notionally comprehensive – that account for an incredible one-third of all admissions to Oxbridge colleges every year.

Add in the next 100 elite schools and these 200 schools account for an incredible 48% of all Oxbridge admissions every year. The other 3,500-odd schools in the UK then account for the remaining 52% of admissions each year. (Although you should try to bear in mind too – if you can through the fog of stats – that 50% of all Oxbridge entrants belong to the 7% of the population that are privately educated whether at an elite school or elsewhere)

Further studies show that at least 25% of cabinet ministers and leading politicians are Oxbridge educated; 50% of leading journalists – especially those at the BBC and the Guardian as well as virtually every household name columnist – are Oxbridge educated and an incredible 85% of the senior judiciary are Oxbridge educated.

Factor in the total domination by Oxbridge graduates of the senior ranks in the civil service, public sector management, the armed services and now even the police, and who says that money, privilege and ‘the old school-tie’ doesn’t put you on the fast track to power and influence in the UK?

University Admissions by Individual Schools (pdf) (Sutton Trust)
Over half country’s top journalists went to private schools (pdf) (Sutton Trust)
Politicians’ Backgrounds (pdf) (Sutton Trust)
The educational backgrounds of the UK’s top solicitors, barristers and judges (pdf) (Sutton Trust)

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9 Responses to Welcome to the meritocracy

  1. James Barlow says:

    Slow news day, BB?

    Schools operated as free agents in a market place achieve better results than those operating as collectivised state industries.

    Any thoughts on the strong positive correlation between quantity of fecal deposition by large mammals of the family Ursidae and density of arboreal cover ?

  2. Amelium Celer says:

    I don’t share James’s reaction, but i would equally say that ‘money, privilege and “the old school-tie”‘ don’t necessarily put you on the fast track to power and influence.

    Yes, going to one of the best universities (and they are, they do work them like bastards from day one, and as such are odd in comparison with other uni’s) will give you a major advantage for the best paid jobs.

    To get into them you do need a good education, and privilege (by which i infer money) does certainly buy that.

    That’s the nub of the problem here, the inequality of opportunity in education, or that we’ve effectively privatized something we all still think should be a universal right for all UK children. If James could show an example of a fully privatized education system that genuinely provides equality of opportunity to all, then let him. But what we have in the UK right now is a nonsense mongrel system, hence the BGS story above.

    The old school tie though really means very little. It actually refers to the fact you have something in common to talk about initially when networking, or you have friends who introduce you to people, same as with being members of the same trade union, or any other shared group identity you may have. As such, put the work in to networking and you can achieve the same.

    Ultimately it’s the education that matters, and so maybe it’s time we spent less time knocking those schools who do it well, and start investigating those schools that don’t? We’re not short of options in this city are we?

  3. DM Andy says:

    Amelium, yes you’re right that the old school tie is no more than the networking between other groups of society. If you use your network well you can achieve opportunities for work that may not have been advertised yet or give you the inside track on what the recruiters are looking for.

    But the crucial difference is in the quality of opportunities your network offers. To take the example of Jeremy Clarkson, he was working down the street when he bumped into an old school friend who got him into presenting for the BBC. Someone else who hadn’t gone to public school might use their network to get a job being a cleaner at the BBC.

    Here I’m not talking about the top achievers, I doubt there’s much difference between the top 10% who went to a public school and the top 10% who went to comprehensives. But the fact is that the average person who went to a fee paying school does have a better life outcome than someone who didn’t. That’s even if you compare people who got exactly the same GCSE/A-Level results so differing educational standards isn’t the reason, society is.

  4. Chris Hutt says:

    Much of the above begs the question of whether people “deserve” to have better or worse life outcomes based on how clever or well educated they happen to be, which seems to be implicit in the notion of meritocracy.

    How you do in life is essentially a matter of luck – who your parents happen to be. There’s no question that people born to the right sort of parents will have vastly better life chances than those born to the wrong sort. But should we say that they “deserve” their better lives?

    From the point of view of the vast majority, it matters not a jot how the privileged elite get their Oxbridge places. Such opportunities are by definition for a select few, way beyond the realistic aspirations of perhaps 90% of the population.

  5. Sarah says:

    There’s some evidence in support of what DM Andy has said about networking and privilege – some researchers from Cardiff and London carried out a long term study of middle class people and educational choices (and opportunities). They found that universities made a difference, but, depressingly it was the people who already had family and school BEFORE they went to Oxbridge (or wherever) were the ones who ended up in influential positions and earning loads of money.
    So you can get to Oxbridge but if you weren’t already drinking cocktails with company directors and their sons and daughters, you are still at a disadvantage.
    The research is written up in a book titled Education and the Middle Class (Sally Power, and others) . Makes pretty depressing reading.

  6. thebristolblogger says:

    Schools operated as free agents in a market place achieve better results

    This is true to a marginal extent. But how are you measuring “results”? If you’re measuring results on the basis of Oxbridge entry then we just go around in circles – independents get more students into Oxbridge ergo they’re better schools.

    But if you use the more objective measure of ‘A’ Level results then, numerically, maintained schools produce more straight A students than the independents. So why does that not translate into more places at Oxbridge Colleges for state school pupils?

    The answer to that is surely largely down to social and non-educational factors, which have nothing at all to do with any known notion of free market economics.

  7. James Barlow says:

    But are A-Levels an objective measure of anything any more? See here.

    The proposition “independents get more students into Oxbridge ergo they’re better schools” is quite plausible, since the point everyone seems to agree on is that the Oxbridge education is the top prize (although not by international standards)

    As to what to do about it: I’d say give state (maintained) schools the same freedoms, with the caveat that this will involve hard competition for pupils, for teachers and for management.

    JMB (OB)

  8. thebristolblogger says:

    But are A-Levels an objective measure of anything any more?

    In comparison to some crusty old English empiricist deciding whether you are clubable or not – then yes. But your general observations on the dumbing down of A levels are accepted. Although isn’t it ironic that making A levels easier and giving out prizes for all actually serves the pupils of elite independent and selective schools better than comprehensives?

    the point everyone seems to agree on is that the Oxbridge education is the top prize

    Oxbridge is undoubtedly the surest route to power and influence and jobs at the BBC, FO, Home Office, in Cabinet, the Inns of Court etc. That’s the thing that really needs tackling. If a couple of universities want to run a finishing school for toffs straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh then that’s their affair really.

    What shouldn’t happen though is that the whole of the country should then be run by the products of this farce. Recruitment, particularly by state institutions needs to be urgently addressed as much – if not more – than Oxbridge entry.

    The fact that 85% of judges in this country are being selected at age 18, largely from public schools, with no reference to life experience whatsoever is absolutely terrifying.

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