Diversity at the top is further away than we think, says report

28 August 2014 -


New government research finds elitism is so deeply embedded in society, it could even be described as ”social engineering”

Farah Dib

A public-school education and a degree from Oxbridge are still the handiest assets for getting to the top, according to a government report published today. In its background analysis of 4,000 UK leaders in politics, business, media and the public sector, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that there is a dramatic overrepresentation of people educated at independent schools in the nation’s top positions.

Concluding that Britain is “deeply elitist”, the report also notes that the homogenous social backgrounds of those “running Britain” are utterly unrepresentative of the public they serve, and lead to ill informed leadership.

Commission chair and former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn said: “This research shows that, despite decades of effort to open up opportunity in this country by successive governments, the UK’s top jobs remain disproportionately held by people from a narrow range of backgrounds.”

In his foreword to the report, Milburn said that elitism had created “a closed shop at the top” and that “locking out a diversity of talents and experiences makes Britain’s leading institutions less informed, less representative and – ultimately – less credible than they should be.” He added: “That is not a recipe for a healthy democratic society.”

The Commission found that Britain is “a long way from a society where everyone has an equal chance”. And the numbers suggest that students of fee-paying schools have a much greater shot at the UK’s top jobs. In particular, the research found that privately educated people made up:

71% of senior judges

62% of senior armed forces officers

55% of permanent secretaries (the most senior civil servants)

53% of senior diplomats

In business, 41% of British-educated FTSE 350 CEOs, and 60% of people on the Sunday Times Rich List, went to private schools. Across the UK population as a whole, that figure is just 7%. The report also highlights significant geographical differences, noting that two in five of UK-educated FTSE CEOs and Rich List stalwarts were educated in London and the South East.

At university level, the numbers are even more remarkable. Only 1% of the whole population hold Oxford or Cambridge degrees, but that small elite forms 75% of senior judges, 59% of the Cabinet, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members in the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of the Shadow Cabinet, 24% of MPs and 12% of the Rich List. Interestingly, more than a quarter of the Rich List (29%) did not attend university at all.

Milburn called for a “national effort to break open Britain's elite”. While the report mainly offers analysis, it also makes recommendations for how social diversity should be promoted by government, schools, universities, employers and parents. The report calls for employers to:

1. Publish data on the social backgrounds of their staff

2. Offer “university-blind” job applications, non-graduate entry routes and contextual evaluation of academic achievements

Meanwhile, it wants the government to:

1. Tackle unpaid internships that disadvantage those who are too poor to work for nothing

2. Lead by example when recruiting for top jobs in the public sector and by collecting data on social background

It also wants parents to support their children’s education by providing a language-rich environment for them to grow up in.

Read the full report Elitist Britain?

For more on the value of diversity and inclusion, check out the details on this forthcoming CMI seminar, set to take place in London on 2 October.

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