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Elite education and top jobs - an unfair connection?

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[caption id="attachment_118590" align="alignright" width="443"]Image: Juan Salmoral
Image: Juan Salmoral

Recently the Independent presented a string of statistics about privately-educated figures of leading industries and trades. It reports that 52% of the Conservative MPs are privately-educated, as are 42% of Labour MPs; over half of the top media professionals were independently educated, like a third of England's cricketers and 26% of the BBC's executives (J. Peretti, The Independent, Feb 1 2015).

There are plenty of negative aspects associated, rightly or wrongly, with the network of privately-educated employees and employers in this country and elsewhere, all of which involve rewarding people for the wrong reasons: nepotism (giving jobs to family members or very close friends because they are just that), the 'Old Etonian problem' (giving a job to an old school classmate because they went to your old school), cronyism (giving a friend a job because he is a friend, not because he would be good at it) and so on.

There is also the malpractice of refusing people jobs because they were state-educated; as if that indicates that they're inherently less intelligent or capable. Thinking about it, it isn't down to private education or the individual school. Plenty of Old Etonians deserve to be in their positions, but plenty of Old Etonians couldn't be trusted to run a bath, let alone a government: simply receiving good education is in no way a qualification for top jobs or responsibilities, nor is attending a poor school an indication of inability or incompetence.

But I would argue that these negative aspects are tied to but altogether separate from the private education system. If we were to eliminate all of these scandalous 'friends in high places' activities, then why is there reason to carry on opposing elite education? If we live in a society - or operate in an economy - which gives the best rewards to the most deserving, then I don't see why there is a problem with a privately-educated person becoming premier.

Whether we like it or not, generally (that word is very important) private schools produce better results (in a manner of speaking) than state schools. Really this should be unsurprising - parents are paying extra, so why should the quality not be higher? Furthermore they are forking out for both their privately-educated child and every other state-educated child to be educated through taxation.

Many critics say that there is inequality within major institutions; they are full of privately-educated individuals, and it is difficult for state-educated persons to get in and fit in. The resolution is not to bar the entry of the privately-educated - as I have written, these pupils tend to have received better education and will be more capable and useful in the job. Neither am I in favour just yet of a Platonic approach - a sort of "let the philosophers become philosophers and the cabbage-growers become cabbage-growers" strategy (refer to Plato's The Republic for more!).

The solution instead is found in social mobility: there are plenty of outstanding children, born to do well but trapped by poor education. Come to think of it, there are also plenty of daft or disorderly children undeserving of the best education, but still in it. If you want to produce not only the best children but also give the best to the most deserving, then education must be assessed on merit, not on family wealth or the good fortune of being born near a reputable educational establishment; neither should we be criticising people on the basis of whether or not they went to a private school and just so happen to be doing well. Robert Webb, writing for the New Statesman last week, puts it splendidly: "I don't mind that George Osborne went to St Paul's School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn't".

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