Tuesday, 15 May 2012

That's totally radical, dude

Michael Gove's privately educated tongue was firmly in his cheek when he recently expressed concern that the top jobs in society are dominated by public school graduates. Calling something "morally indefensible" is a way of excusing it from government responsibility, morality being a private matter. The "oh dearey me" tone was particularly noticeable when he sniped at the BBC and the Guardian ("edited by privately educated men for the last 60 years").

His repeated name-checking of actors, musos and athletes as examples of this entrenched privilege is typical Govian weaseliness. Though we all know that contacts and access to superior facilities can make a huge difference, we're reluctant to believe that named individuals are wholly without talent (though I'm prepared to make an exception for Chris Martin).

Gove gets to the main course when he claims that politicians have failed to tackle the problem with "anything like the radicalism required". His break with this shameful past is based on more academies (education removed from local authority control), greater diversity (free schools and no challenging the charitable status of private education), and beasting those lazy teachers. Merging Eton with a Slough comprehensive presumably fails because it isn't radical enough. You'll notice that "radical" appears to have been drained of all meaning in recent years.

The strategy for whinging teachers was articulated by Michal Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, at the same conference of private school heads. In particular, he rubbished the claims that teachers have been put under a lot of stress by successive educational reforms and the focus on league tables. "Stress is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 50s and 60s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family". Meanwhile, teachers are complaining about the lack of respect they receive.

Just as Gove's use of named individuals takes the sting out of the observation of class bias (your anger is slightly diluted when he mentions Hugh Laurie), so the dialogue between Wilshaw and the teachers is emotionalised by the use of words such as "stress" and "respect", not to mention the chippy reference to Wilshaw's dad that pits honest working class "strivers" against self-indulgent middle-class teachers.

Respect is clearly a codeword for the fear of downward social mobility. Wilshaw's dad anecdote tells you where he sees teachers in the social pecking order. Since the mid-80s, there has been a concerted attempt by successive governments to de-professionalise teaching. While lawyers and doctors have retained a large degree of independence over the management of professional qualifications and the governance of professional practice, teachers have been disempowered by the imposition of successive regulations by Whitehall. They have less control over the curriculum, there is more inspection and assessment of their performance (as if they were on a production line), and over their shoulder they notice the increasing use of unqualified learning assistants.

This week, Nick Clegg has chipped in with a few more quid for the pupil premium as the solution to improving the life chances of disadvantaged kids, though with the proviso that schools use of the cash has to produce results, not just staunch the effect of other cuts. "We won't be telling you what to do, but we will be watching what you achieve," he said in typically confused LibDem fashion.

Gove's game is pretty obvious: use anxiety over standards to centralise control; encourage the revival of the grammar schools through academies and free schools (wholly at ministerial discretion); insist that education is a competitive market and that there must be winners and losers. Once academies are in place, the rump of comprehensives will become secondary moderns in all but name. Floreat Etona.

The solution to the issue of social mobility is quite simple, and does not require the destruction of private schools (fun though that might be). While some parents may genuinely believe that a "better" education is a moral good, most people see it in purely instrumental terms. If you pay for private education, you expect to get tangible advantages in terms of exam results, university access and entry to the professions. Social mobility can best be advanced not by trying to open up more opportunities at the front-end of the sausage machine but by implementing quotas at the back end. Equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.

In his speech Gove noted that the privately educated (7% of all pupils) are disproportionately represented among CEOs. The figure for FTSE 100 companies is 50%. What he didn't mention is that the comparable figure for finance directors is 70%. Given that some companies still favour the hereditary principle (see Rupert Murdoch), and given that rich businessmen/owners often send their kids to private schools, you'd expect the CEO figure to be above 7%. If you also bear in mind than many CEOs work their way to the job via the finance director role, then 50% isn't really that surprising. What is more significant is why over 70% of top finance jobs are occupied by the privately educated, a figure not far short of the 75% of judges. The old Peter Cook joke was that the latter required "Latin for the judgin'", which wasn't on offer outside of private schools and grammars, but basic bean-counting is taught everywhere.

The explanation is twofold. As a self-regulating profession, accountancy is a closed shop. Like attracts like, with the consequence that the privately educated have a far better chance of getting on the gravy train in the first place. This is what entrenched privilege means. The second dynamic relates to the even more restricted world of finance. A company listed on the London Stock Exchange needs a credible go-between to the banks, investment analysts, brokers and fund managers. As the City is dominated by the privately educated (the clever proles do trading and quants), this biases selection for the top finance roles towards public school alumni: chaps like us.

The idea of quotas has recently been floated in the context of female representation on company boards. While this will be resisted, it is likely to come about because the resisters have daughters as well as sons, and those daughters increasingly want careers (see Rupert Murdoch again). Ultimately, co-opting women from the same social class (and even family) is not seen as a threat to existing privilege, so it will be accommodated.

A key argument in favour of female quotas is the idea that at a gross enough level there will be as much talent in a female-only pool of candidates as among a mixed-sex pool, so you're not restricting yourself to second-best. In the short-run, "boardable" women will be at a premium, but the mechanics of supply and demand will soon change that, just as women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidates have resulted in more women seeking seats. Companies will be encouraged to promote more women from within if the alternative is riskier and more expensive recruitment from without.

An ideological reason for resisting female quotas is that it proves that a "pull" strategy (equality of outcome) can be more effective than a "push" strategy (equality of opportunity). In other words, engineering an outcome is preferable to mere exhortation or cosmetic levelling of the playing field (the Nick Clegg approach).

Social mobility would be transformed if we adopted a pull strategy. Mandating that all businesses have to ensure a certain quota of non-privately educated hires among their management tier would be clumsy and probably unworkable. A quota works best at the most gross level, where individual talent is not statistically significant. The place to start would be with the professions. The qualifying bodies for accountancy, law and medicine should be required to award 80% (rising to 90%) of their qualifications to applicants who spent their secondary years at state schools.

I'd go further and introduce quotas for "top" university courses, to ensure that the professional quotas were not undermined by constricting graduate supply. The Russell Group of the top 20 universities takes in about 75,000 undergraduates each year, and there are about 4,000 secondary schools and sixth form colleges in the UK. Assuming that intelligence and aptitude are evenly spread in society, i.e. the youth of Cardiff are no thicker than those of Chelsea, it would not be unreasonable to simply allocate these places proportionately by school size.

I don’t know how many of the 75,000 places go to international students, but let’s assume 35,000 for argument’s sake and simple maths. This means each school/college would have on average 10 places to allocate each year to its best-performing upper-sixth pupils. (I appreciate that this doesn’t allow for the intricacies of course choice, so there would still have to be "clearing" of some sort, but that doesn't invalidate the principle). This approach would be both meritocratic and progressive. It would, at a stroke, remove the inbuilt bias toward public schools, and might even lead to a healthier approach to local schools by the sharp-elbowed middle class - i.e. their interests would be best served by spreading across the maximum number of schools instead of concentrating in a few.

The one profession I wouldn't initially introduce quotas for would be teaching. After all, if more of the privately educated start to gravitate towards this career, we might see a reversal in the denigration of the role and an increase in respect.


  1. David, vaguely on point. Apparently one problem for state school pupils applying to Russell group universities is that they tend to apply for the most competitive courses - law, english medicine rather than classics, theology, old Norse. Why not expand the intake for those courses and squeeze it for others? ( I speak, hypocritically, as an ex public school boy gently nudged into doing Latin and Greek A levels - got me Oxbridge entry, but I personally might have has greater intellectual benefit, if not job benefit, from another course somewhere else.)

  2. You raise an ironic point in that what you have benefited from is de facto a quota - i.e. the reserving of places for subjects that are disproportionately (or exclusively) studied at private schools.

    I'm not keen on legislating what should or should not be studied, as I think this entails greater risks than benefits. This is why I'd support teachers regaining control of the curriculum from Whitehall.

    Also, bear in mind that law at Oxbridge is still disproportionately studied by students from public schools. Expanding the intake might increase the quantum of state school students who get places, but without any other changes it is likely to sweep up more public school pupils in the same proportion.

  3. I'm well aware now, with 25 + yrs of hindsight, that I benefited from a quota. Would I tell someone of 18 to do the same? Don't know. Would I have got in if I'd applied for something else? Good chance (it was easier then). My point (I think) is that there are a level courses being pursued with little object other than Oxbridge entry. Not sure if that really does anyone any good.

    On law. At Oxbridge, I'm sure your figures are right, but what if the the publlx school classicist and theologians were competing with the public school law applicants? They nearly all end up as lawyers, so they might as well start out that way. (boris excepted)

    Shame about Chelsea

  4. Forgot to say, non rhetorical question. Who should decide what is studied at university? I haven't a clue. How should it be decided? Ditto. Not a criticism, just interested in your thoughts.

    1. A Martian writes ...

      If you consider higher education to be an intrinsic good, then you've really made a mess of organising it. You compress it into a few short years, at a time when most students are unreceptive to learning (raging hormones and negligible responsibilities), and make a big deal about passing exams, which prove nothing other than that you can pass exams.

      It doesn't look as if the purpose is to socialise the young, inculcating adult norms of behaviour, otherwise you'd presumably make it mandatory for all. Ironically, those kids who don't go to university appear to mature quicker.

      The key observable feature of your higher education is that it is only made available to a minority of the population. There appears to be a common belief that widening access would devalue it. The fact that it separates society into two clearly defined groups seems to be central to its purpose. A degree appears to function as a token.

      The vast majority of graduates appear to make little use of the specifics of their education when they enter the job market, though they do tend to benefit from the generic training that they indirectly acquire: analysis, articulacy, precis, organisation, planning etc. These appear to be mainly suited to white-collar careers. This could be imparted much more efficiently.

      I conclude that what is studied is (for most students) largely irrelevant, so it doesn't particularly matter who designs the curriculum. You might make the token system more efficient by either a) selling degrees, or b) awarding them randomly. Universities could be limited to post-graduate study, i.e. students who want to learn a subject in order to become a specialised practitioner. The generic skills could be taught in place of A-levels in schools.

  5. Always worth consulting Martians. Thanks. Précis type skills etc could be learnt at school - not necessarily that well taught at university (says person who has to teach young lawyers to write). Point taken about age and socialisation.

    I have vague feelings of unease about technical skills- science, engineering, languages. Yes, few use them, but is that they son't have them to use in the first place? But I have nothing constructive to say.
    Thank you.