Change the system not the schools

27 Jan

In his fascinating programme Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, Andrew Neil looked at why the Government and Opposition benches in the House of Commons are currently dominated by men educated at public schools.

However, his conclusion that the comprehensive school system is somehow part of the problem does not take wider issues into account.

Yes, grammar schools helped the rise of the 'meritocracy' like Mr Neil, but that doesn't explain why Westminster is currently dominated by such a narrow group. Yes, many are public school educated, although on both the Labour frontbench (Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham) and the Conservative (William Hague, Liam Fox and Theresa May) there are those who were educated at state schools. Many went to Oxbridge perhaps even more Ox (PPE) than Bridge but most striking of all is that they are predominantly white men of a similar age, background and university education who have never worked outside politics.

There are far more students going to university now than in Andrew Neil's day (fewer than 10% then compared with almost 40% now, with 34% of Oxford students and 27% at Cambridge from state schools in 1961 compared with over 50% today). Teachers, university students or the population as a whole are not predominantly white middle class men, so why are politicians? "Girls outperform boys" is a common headline at exam time.

When someone who isn't a Mr Clameron-Balliband makes it to the front bench, ie a woman, the Twitterati and media often seem more interested in their choice of jacket than their policies! Perhaps we should see fewer men in boring suits and more blazers, jackets or even shirt sleeves to make the place look more modern!

We have a self-perpetuating system of institutionalised institutionalism. Like likes like and this produces a political system where leading MPs from all the three main political parties are increasingly of a similar age, background and education and go straight from university to a job as a researcher or 'adviser' and then into an MP's seat. If you're Rory Bremner, life becomes very difficult when Cameron/Clegg/Milibands/Balls/Burnham merge into one.

We need to ask why so few people vote let alone want to go into politics. Especially now that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolution, citizens can conduct their own Facebook campaigns, have their say online, or go to the media with local issues, is Westminster becoming more irrelevant to ‘ordinary’ people?

Is the desire to find a good job, get on the housing ladder, pay the mortgage and the pension and the student loan and the bills stronger than the lure of making a difference in politics, unless you have the cushion of wealth or a job in the Westminster bubble to fall back on if you lose your seat as an MP at the next election?

Is the House of Commons, with its arcane rituals and family-unfriendly working hours, increasingly off-putting in the twenty-first century, unless you have been schooled in debating societies and the Oxford Union? There is pressure on MPs to be lobby fodder and toe the party line; to conform; to be party delegates not constituency representatives.

Even the adversarial seating plan, which produced the Government v Opposition benches, is medieval, without enough room for all the MPs, and hardly suited to a modern, multi-party democracy or to coalition government.

Parties can be more forward thinking. The Conservative Party, for example, has been radical with its choice of leaders in the past Disraeli, Heath, Thatcher, Major were all innovative choices at the time.

Rather than looking back to a time when a certain type of state school helped some ordinary people gain access to an arcane and outdated system and compete on its terms, we should be changing the system to compete in the modern world and be more representative of those it is supposed to represent.

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One Response to “Change the system not the schools”

  1. Wesley Paxton 28. Jan, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    We’ve also got a “culture of youth” as exemplifid by the well publicised problems of “mature” ladies on TV From the generation of Wilson and Callaghan who were old enough to be my dad, within a generation we have jumped to those young enough fo me to be their dad. The “old” Davis was dumped by the Tories for a much younger Cameron. Clegg is a full decade younger than his opponent, Chris Huhne, and was Ed the youngest of all the 5 Labour hopefuls? There was a time when to be young was wet behind the ears, now experience is seen to be a disadvantage. Could this explain at least some of the cras decisions made so often in our society? Scrapping an aircraft carrier and buying a new one without aircraft might be one example?

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