More perm secs privately educated than five years ago, report finds

Written by Beckie Smith on 25 June 2019 in News
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Department chiefs twice as likely to have attended a fee-paying school than a comprehensive, education charity says

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More permanent secretaries are privately-educated now than five years ago, according to a figures in a report that shows how elite education has maintained its grip on the upper echelons of UK society.

Educational charity the Sutton Trust said 59% of the current perm secs in government departments went to private school, an increase of 4% since 2014. Meanwhile, 56% went to either the University of Oxford or Cambridge, the report published today said.

Privately-educated people – classed as those who spent most of their secondary-school years at a fee-paying school – made up a higher proportion of perm secs than any other profession looked at in the report except for senior judges, where the figure was 65%.


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Making up the top five, 57% of peers in the House of Lords were privately-educated, 52% of Foreign Office diplomats and 52% of junior ministers.

The report's findings in relation to perm secs will come as a blow to Whitehall leaders attempting to make the civil service more reflective of UK society at all levels.

Its authors said employers should collect and monitor data on the socio-economic background of their employees as well as on gender and ethnicity. They found 39% of the UK’s professional “elite” – who occupy top posts in public services, politics and the media – were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population. Seventeen percent were Oxbridge graduates, compared to just 1% of the population.

A third of diplomats went to independent school and then to an Oxbridge university.

The report painted a “consistent picture of over-representation of those from elite educational backgrounds” across the civil service and its arm’s-length bodies.

“Despite recent efforts to overhaul entry into the civil service, its highest levels remain highly exclusive,” the report said.

The figures showed that perm secs were around twice as likely to have attended a fee-paying school than a comprehensive. The proportion who went to a comprehensive school rose by 11% to 28% in the space of five years, but this came at the expense of those who went to a grammar school rather than private institutions. Only 14% of perm secs went to a grammar school, down 14% since 2014.

All perm secs were university graduates, and only 8% went to a non-Russell Group university.

And former private-school pupils and Oxbridge graduates were not only hugely over-represented among perm secs and diplomats, but also those leading public bodies.

At the top of public bodies, 45% of chairs and 30% of chief executives went to private school. Two-fifths of public body chairs and a quarter of chief execs went to either Oxford or Cambridge.

The fact that chairs were more likely to have had an elite education than chief executives may reflect both their age and social-class background, the report suggested.

The report made several recommendations to boost socio-economic diversity across the professions it looked at. As well as collecting better data, it said employers must confront a “culture of expectation of unpaid work” from graduates entering the workforce.

And employers should adopt contextual recruitment processes that consider attainment and successes in the context of disadvantage – including attendance at underperforming schools, for example – when examining applications and only requiring qualifications that are “actually and demonstrably necessary to perform the job”.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chairman of the Sutton Trust, said the report demonstrated Britain was an “increasingly divided society, divided by politics, by class, by geography”.

“As well as academic achievement, an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork which are vital to career success,” he said. 

“The key to improving social mobility at the top is to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools.”

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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