Education and Representation in British Politics

[This article was first published in April 2013 on Institute of Opinion]

There is continuous debate as to just how representative a representative parliament should be. The UK is never realistically going to achieve full, exact representation – how should such classification be judged in the first place? Social class? Ethnicity? Economic activity? Regardless, it is regularly discussed that the House of Commons is rather unrepresentative of the people of the Britain. Comments like these are usually made on the basis of educational background, using schooling as a judge of socio-economic class and political ideology. There are of course flaws in taking this line of analysis in the first place, but it is interesting to consider the facts concerning the educational backgrounds of MPs and how representative such members actually are of the population. Data published by the Sutton Trust, discussed below, suggests that, while there is still a large proportion of independently schooled and university educated MPs in government, the percentages are leaning towards more relevant representation, and that the problem with a disconnected House of Commons is more likely found in the system of education and power, than in the MPs or their parties themselves.

University Backgrounds

A remark that is thrown about by critics of the ‘somewhat elite’ in British politics is that the proportion of MPs that attended either Oxford or Cambridge Universities is too high. The data is hard to ignore. The Sutton Trust’s statistics, which includes 601 MPs with known educational backgrounds, finds that 28% attended Oxbridge. This figure gives distinct premise to the notion that courses such as PPE at Oxford are effective gateways into politically-powerfuljobs. One can literally reel off the MPs that have studied this particular degree: David Cameron, (ex-MP) David Miliband, Ed Balls, William Hague etc. However, it should be highlighted that in the last forty years, the proportion of Oxbridge-educated MPs in parliament has fallen significantly. Here is a summary of the three main political parties, with the percentage of their MPs in 1966 that attended Oxbridge, followed by the same figure from 2010:

  • Conservative MPs –57 down to 38
  • Liberal Democrat MPs – 50 down to 28
  • Labour MPs – 23 down to 20

It is obvious that some parties are still more packed with the elite-educated than others, but there is no denying that the spread is moving toward a more relevant parliament.

Of course, one shouldn’t necessarily just look at Oxbridge. Currently, 63% of MPs attended a university that is either a member of the Russell or 1994 Groups, both research intensive and intellectually demanding. This figure is hardly representative of the population. Just 10% of MPs did not attend university at all. While there may be discontent with the amount of elite-educated MPs, it is obvious that the problem does not lie just with Oxford or Cambridge. In order to find out more, research must go deeper, into secondary education.

School Backgrounds

Here there are similar disparities between the realities of national education and the background of MPs. Just 7% of the British population is privately educated, and yet 35% of all MPs attended independent, fee-paying schools – of the main three parties in fact, 37% did. 41% attended state comprehensive, whilst 24% attended state selective schools, a particular structure that has fallen out of favour in the contemporary era.As with university backgrounds, exclusive schools produce a considerable amount of members. There are currently 20 Old Etonians in the House of Commons – 19 of them Conservative. 18 MPs attended Highgate, Millfield, Westminster or Nottingham High Schools combined. The Sutton Report found that overall, 13 schools, all but one fee-charging, produce a tenth of MPs. The elite nature of the Commons is certainly a worry. But, like the spread of university/non-university attendance, the proportions are improving towards a more representative parliament.

Once again, here is a summary of the change in secondary school background proportions for the three main political parties. The percentage of their privately schooled MPs in 1979, is followed by the same figure from 2010:

  • Main Party MPs – 49 down to 37
  • Conservative MPs –73 down to 54
  • Liberal Democrat MPs – 55 down to 40
  • Labour MPs – 18 down to 15

As with elite university attendance, there are still disparities between secondary schooling among MPs and the national averages. However, representation is improving.

Conclusion

Despite distinct developments in the variety and spread of educational background of members of the House of Commons, there remains an elitist fog over the whole system. Both parents and students alike are known to favour certain schools and universities because the system grants them advantages in the world of British parliamentary politics. Of course, the public must vote them in in the first place, there is no denying that. There are, however, biases in the system that must be investigated further, including admissions to elite schools and universities, the power of those institutions to propel their students into positions of influence, and the attitudes of those graduates that favour like-minded, and like-educated politicians and civil servants. The ‘Notting Hill’ group of conservative politicians, most of whom studied with Cameron at Oxford, is testament to that.

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