Why top professions favour independent school pupils

Reading the Sutton Trust’s recent report, Leading People 2016The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, I am taken back nearly 20 years to a large assembly hall in a faceless RAF base in Lincolnshire where heads of independent and maintained schools were gathered to hear venerable, senior members of our three armed services tell us why we should be encouraging our students to join the Navy, Army and RAF.  New Labour was about to be elected and John Reid, then Shadow Defence Secretary took to the stage.  Early on in his session he was asked a question by a maintained school head: “What are you going to do about the current, unacceptable situation which means that such a high proportion of officers recruited to the British Army are privately educated?”  Reid’s comment surprised us all: “Well, rather than trying to limit the numbers coming from private schools, I am going to look at why such a high proportion of those applying from private schools have what the Army is looking for – and then work with my colleagues in education to give more of our young people coming through the state sector the same qualities that clearly these successful applicants have.”

The approach taken by New Labour and subsequently both by the Coalition and current Government has been to attempt to bring various elements of independent schools’ DNA to the state system, with the academy programme being the clearest example. Within the independent sector, the growth of partnerships between state and independent schools has shown that there is plenty of willingness from both sectors to work together for the benefit of young people.

The Sutton Trust does commendable work in increasing the access for particularly able maintained sector students to top independent day schools through its Open Access scheme (which it would like to see expanded) and through its Pathways and summer school programmes.  Meanwhile the money committed to means-tested based financial assistance (aka bursaries) from within the independent sector grows year by year – according to the Independent Schools’ Council, these bursaries are valued at £340 million, supporting 41,400 pupils. Within my school, the most popular fundraising cause has consistently been for bursaries to broaden access to the school – above all to bring people here on 100% awards.

There are many areas of the Sutton Trust report which are intriguing, but for me the discussion about ‘soft skills’ is one of the most interesting. The report’s executive summary refers to the idea that “increasing importance is being attributed by recruiters to ‘soft skills’, including certain social skills which are not always as accessible to those from less privileged backgrounds.” Read the full article, originally published in The Telegraph (03/03/16).