A news report in Mondays Independent newspaper responds to the way in which young men and women from Independent Schools are able to gain advantage from their education and are disproportionately represented in the high ranks in Business, Public Sector and Entertainment to name a few. If the report is accurate, Independent School educated Cabinet Secretary, Matt Hancock MP (Kings School, Chester) has devised a set of questions for businesses to use as part of the Governments ‘Life Chances’ agenda. According to the paper ‘Mr Hancock’s proposals include a set of questions allowing companies to check the “socio-economic background” of job applicants. He said employers must look to “spot potential, not polish”. Critics claim too many professions and senior positions are dominated by the seven per cent of people who attended independent schools. Suggested questions include asking the area where someone lived up to the age of 14, whether they received free school meals and asking about their parents’ professions. The Government is urging major companies to adopt the social mobility agenda.’
As the article goes on to say, Eton Educated William Waldegrave is very unhappy at the idea of this form of discrimination. He is the crown appointed provost of his old School. “Fundamentally I think it quite wrong to punish children for decisions taken by their parents, and to run the risk of choosing crucial public service jobs not on the basis of merit but of social engineering. The ablest candidates come from all possible backgrounds. I have told the Chief Whip in the Lords that I do not see how I could continue to accept the Whip if I believed that the Government was actively seeking to damage the charitable school of which I am a Trustee, and the many other schools like it which are meeting the justifiable demands of the Charity Commission to help the wider community.”
I have taken the report at face value, despite the inconsistency in which Hancock refers to businesses whilst Waldegrave is referring to public service posts. Neverthless a number of very clear elements stand out from the story.
The first is that whatever the true nature of the Life Chances agenda, that this idea is completely nonsense. It is not the job of Governments to tell Companies how to run their recruitment process. I know that, Waldegrave knows that and Matt Hancock surely knows that? The idea that major businesses are going to treat this seriously is ridiculous. Is this just a bit of window dressing? However the Government does have the opportunity to change the way it recruits men and women into the civil service, and the types of businesses it turns to for procurement. Perhaps most of all the Government has complete control over who the Political Party of the day invites into the Cabinet, and they have the opportunity to change the people who are sitting in the House of Lords.
The second is that in one sense Waldegrave is right, this policy if enacted could discriminate against children from a given educational background, which is not the way to change things. On the day of the interview, the best people should be employed, although how such people are selected should avoid any risk of their educational background, as opposed to their true characters from emerging as the dominant factor. To run an organisation with a hierarchy or talent pool from a small group of people is deeply damaging. It does not mean that such businesses will fail, but it does mean that they will not be able to succeed as well as they might. Rather than asking businesses to ask rather silly questions which are in themselves discriminatory, what the Government could do is offer tools that would allow Companies to better understand their workforce, and how to diversify their workforce in a more positive way. Clearly testing such tools on the public sector would also be a good thing.
If Independent Schools are going to help the wider community as Waldegrave suggests, one way in which they could do this is to provoke our Government to improve the way in which they resource Schools. A secondary school in this country receives £3,000 per child. The fees for Eton are some 10 times that amount. While there are all sorts of reasons why money does not change all of the elements in play, the idea that a business should not be able to spot some return on such an investment is clearly foolish. We need to ensure that our state education is fit for its purpose, and part of that fitness depends on resources.
Its a minor point, but as long as the crown is responsible for appointing the provost of Eton, and they appoint people like William Waldegrave the whole thing will remain as it is. I cannot understand why one School or one charity should have a crown appointment, but for as long as this is the case, what about ensuring that they appoint someone from a different educational background. The same goes for appointment of Bishops and Senior people within the Armed Forces and the Police. Its not that such people should be excluded, merely that a more diverse pool of talent is demanded by the crown and then they ensure that diversity is part of their criteria when looking at the overall group of Bishops, Chief Constables and Admirals etc.