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Dubious Stat klaxon!

It passed me by at the time, so I’ve only just seen a piece by Gary Younge in the Guardian, published back in May, which contains this damning observation on the educational background of MPs. ‘Today,’ wrote Younge, ‘almost 40% of MPs went to private school. In 1997 it was just 30%’. He went on: ‘In terms of social mobility, we are going backwards’.

Gosh.  Isn’t that terrible?

Except, of course, that anyone who knows anything about the composition of the House of Commons will have noticed the sleight of hand involved.

In 1997, Britain had just had a Labour landslide – with more than 400 Labour MPs, fewer than 170 Conservatives.  Today, the number of Conservative MPs has topped 300, with a concomitant decline in the number of Labour MPs.  Conservative MPs have long been more likely than Labour MPs to have gone to private schools, and so – all things being equal – you should hardly be surprised if the number of privately-educated MPs goes up when you have more Conservative MPs.

The more interesting trend is the one behind the headline statistic – and which shows that things are actually going in the opposite way to that identified by Younge.

As Byron Criddle points out in his chapter in this (rather good) book on the 2010 election, the propensity of Conservative MPs to have come from private schools has been in decline for decades.  If you take the last four Conservative victories, the figures are: 73% (1979), 70% (1983), 68% (1987), 62% (1992).  The figure for 2010 was even lower – at 54% – and of those MPs elected for the first time in 2010 the split was even between privately educated MPs.  Criddle also notes that ‘within the private school category, the presence of the famous elite schools has waned’, with fewer Etonians than ever before.

The figure for privately educated Labour MPs in 2010 was 14%, about the same as it had been for several elections.

One might still think these figures too high – and there is no doubt that there are plenty of issues about the composition of the Commons, on all sides of the House.  For all the talk of trying to create a parliamentary party in the image of those represented, the absence of working class MPs on the Conservative side of the House is striking.

At the last election, the party secured 37% of the C2 vote and 31% of the DE vote and yet almost no efforts have been made to ensure that this segment of the population – and of the Conservatives’ own supporters – receives representation on the Conservative benches.

But if you get your diagnosis of the problem wrong, you’re much less likely to get the right remedy.

UPDATE: Wrote this on Friday, and by coincidence found myself at a conference with Byron Criddle on Sunday, where he was making exactly the same point. His paper also pointed out that there has been a similar fall in the percentage of privately educated ministers under Conservative governments. The current proportion is exactly the same as their preponderance in the parliamentary party as a whole.

Professor Phil Cowley


Published inBritish Politics


  1. Tim Cross Tim Cross

    I’m not sure that I care much where any of our politicians went to school/university, or whether or not they were/are working or any other class – what I want are men and women of character and strategic vision, traits that sadly are in short supply in Parliament today.

    This said, I suspect if you analysed, for example, the current (and past) Olympic GB Rowing team then a fair percentage of them will have gone to Prep/Public School.

    Irritating as it may be to many, Public Schools do tend to focus in on developing character, determination and an ability to look out into the future with confidence. Obviously it doesn’t work out for everyone – but the underlying ethos is not a bad one!

    Tim C – a state primary and Grammer School boy, followed by a military university!

  2. Tim

    Whether it matters to you or not, it matters to others. It mattered, for example, to Younge in terms of social mobility. It would matter to others in terms of representativeness, for either substantive or symbolic reasons. I didn’t say it did matter – just that if you thought it did, you’d do well to get your facts right. As to what the ‘correct’ % would be – of this, or other groups – is up for debate.

    As for rowing, well, I suspect there may be other factors at work there….

  3. Daniel Cooper Daniel Cooper

    There was some research done by the Sutton Trust that showed that those from state schools achieved higher degree classifications than those from independent schools when entering with the same A-level scores. This surely challenges the assertion that independent schools teach “determination”?

    • Ron Johnston Ron Johnston

      That work was done at the University of Bristol: see Studies in Higher Education, 36, 2011, 21-41.

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