Lucy Powell MP: We must break the stranglehold private schools have on social mobility

Posted On: 
14th October 2019

Money shouldn’t buy you an easier route to top jobs. Redressing the balance between private and public education will drive opportunity for all, writes Lucy Powell MP

"State school pupils have to take tough new GCSEs, while their private school peers can choose to sit easier International GCSEs "
Credit: 
Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images

Private school alumni continue to dominate admissions to the top universities and high-ranking professions. A report by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission into the education background of 5,000 people in top jobs shows they were five times more likely to have gone to private schools than the average population.

This isn’t just about the usual jobs either – senior judges, politicians, diplomats or news columnists – as one in five pop stars attended private schools, highlighting the worrying trend that the children of well-heeled, well-networked parents are dominating the creative industries too.

It’s time to level the playing field and break the stranglehold private education has on social mobility.

As I’ve shown through research into the exams that private and state school pupils sit, the system is rigged against state school pupils. State school pupils have to take tough new GCSEs, while their private school peers can choose to sit easier International GCSEs (IGCSEs), that aren’t regulated by Ofqual.

Moreover, IGCSE grading is not bound by the same statistical norms as GCSEs, with analysis from Education Datalab showing that IGCSEs are not graded as severely as reformed GCSEs. Two-thirds of pupils achieved grade A*-A in IGCSEs in maths and English language, whereas this figure is effectively capped at 20% in the new GCSEs. Yet universities treat them as equivalent, boosting the chances of private school pupils and creating a two-tier system.

And while some independent schools point to the bursaries they offer to a few disadvantaged children, and the links they have with a small number of state schools, this narrow view of how to boost social mobility is holding our country back.

Social mobility shouldn’t be about plucking the lucky few from the council estate and putting them through private school. It must be about ensuring all children have access to the highest quality education, excellent careers advice and guidance, and support to access the networks that can mean so much later in life.

The tax system benefits private schools unfairly which is untenable when state school budgets have been cut by the Government for the first time in decades. That’s why it’s right that Labour is looking at how to ensure private schools do not benefit from charitable status.

It’s right, too, that we look at how we can level the playing field in exams, access to university and jobs. We should ensure that regulated state school exams count for more in university admissions than unregulated IGCSE exams, and ensure universities make use of contextual data for admissions by looking at applicants’ abilities in the context of not having all of life’s advantages.

We should also ban unpaid internships and explore how we can better ensure all young people can access opportunities to get into, and excel at, the top professions.

Our country is increasingly divided by a wealth and opportunity gap, that is often interlinked and pervasive. Private schools entrench advantages.

State schools are working flat out to give disadvantaged children the chance to succeed. Yet the odds are stacked against them.

Regardless of whether you agree with abolishing private schools or not, we should all agree that money shouldn’t buy you an easier route to the top jobs or the networks and self-confidence that mean private school pupils get much further in life than their counterparts in poorer areas.

Tackling the social mobility cost of private schools will help spread opportunity and equality, not further entrench the social justice gap. Levelling the playing field between private education and public will drive up social mobility and opportunity for all.

Lucy Powell is Labour MP for Manchester Central and a former shadow education secretary