Are state school pupils less likely to reach top jobs?

2 August 2016
What was claimed

State school pupils are less likely to reach top professions than pupils from private schools.

Our verdict

Overall this is correct.

“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.”

Theresa May, 13 July 2016

A number of studies have been conducted into the impact that attending a state school or a private school have on whether or not students will  reach the top professions, and the best jobs within those professions. Although there are some exceptions, they found that in general, private school pupils had far higher representation in the top jobs than in the general population.

In January 2015 there were around 8.4 million school students in England and just over 580,000 of these students attended private schools, according to the Department for Education. That’s roughly 7%.

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You’re more likely to get a ‘top job’ if you’ve attended private school

In 2011 55% of people who were privately educated had a professional or managerial job, compared to 29% who went to state school, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

The differences between the levels of private and state school pupils who go on to have jobs in the top professions varies depending on which professions you look at and how ‘high up’ within the profession you go. We looked at a few examples.

Some of them are based on survey evidence and rely on everyone replying to the question, which doesn’t always happen. Because of that, the results can be taken as an indication of how many professionals went to private or state school rather than an exact figure. Others look at a relatively small group person-by-person, so are exact.

A quarter of medical school applicants went to private school, and more top doctors

Almost a quarter of UK students applying for 22 medical schools between 2009/10 and 2011/12 went to independent schools, according to academics from the University of Dundee and the University of Central Lancashire.

We don’t know how they fared in their applications, but there is evidence that the top of the profession is even more likely to be privately educated.

The Sutton Trust, a think tank specialising in social mobility, recently analysed a sample of working age medical professionals who were members of the Royal College of Physicians, educated in the UK and who appeared in the directory Who’s Who. 61% of these doctors went to independent schools, while 38% went to state schools (both grammar schools and comprehensives).

Around half of all top journalists went to private school

When looking at the top journalists the Trust chose its top 100 for its perceived influence on public debate, so it was weighted towards contributors to national newspapers and editors. 51% of those educated in the UK went to private schools, 49% to state schools.

Similarly, the Social Mobility Commission said in 2014 that 43% of national newspaper columnists went to private schools.

One third of chief executives at FTSE 100 companiesthe 100 biggest companies listed on the London Stock Exchangewent to private school, according to the same Sutton Trust research. 66% went to state schools. However, these figures don’t include the 39% of chief executives who were educated outside the UK.

Judges are more likely to have gone to private school than any other group

The Sutton Trust also found that in 2015, almost three quarters of High Court and Court of Appeal judges went to private schools, a higher percentage than any other group. Of the top 100 senior barristers known as QCs, as listed by legal directory Chambers UK, nearly 71% of those educated in the UK attended a private school.

A survey by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2015 found that 70% of all lawyers across England and Wales attended state schools, 22% went to a private school and the rest were educated outside the UK.

This increases to 26% when looking just at partners in law firms.

The data also varies widely depending on which area the lawyers are from. For example, 57% of lawyers in London attended state school and 25% went to private school, with the rest educated outside the UK. By contrast, 87% of lawyers in Wales went to state school and 12% went to an independent school.

MPs and civil servants are more likely to be privately educated than local government leaders

One third of MPs went to private schools, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, though this varied significantly between political parties. We’ve written more about that here.

The number of cabinet members who were privately educated has been decreasing. In 2015 it was half, whereas in 2010 it was 62%. We haven’t checked Theresa May’s new cabinet, though.

The figure was much lower in local government where 15% of council leaders went to private school, compared with 82% who attended state school.

In 2014 the Social Mobility Commission found that 55% of permanent secretariesthe top civil servant in each government departmentattended private schools, as did a similar proportion of senior diplomats.

Similar analysis by the Sutton Trust found that of the top civil servants (149) featured in Dods People, a civil service directory, 48% who were educated in the UK went to private school and 52% went to state school.

This may be changing. In 2014 the Cabinet Office produced a report into the socio-economic backgrounds of new staff in the Senior Civil Service.

23% went to an independent school, while 73% went to state school. The rest were educated outside of the UK.

A similar proportion of those joining the civil service Fast Stream programme in 2014 went to independent schools.

Another Civil Service report found that 65% of applicants to the civil service fast-stream programme went to state schools and 22% went to independent schools in 2014.

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