Alan Milburn has been made the Czar of the greasy pole. It is time more was done to promote social mobility in Britain.
My advice to Alan is simple. Do not think the great Universities or the Armed Services want to recruit preponderantly former public school pupils, or that the answer is imposing targets or other demands on the recruitment services of the professions. I know from experience that an institution like Oxford Univeristy tries very hard to recruit from state schools and from the more deprived parts of the country.
The answer to that problem lies in the achievements and aspirations of the state schools. Alan needs to ensure that the poorer performing state schools have not just money, but esprit de corps, good leadership, and a sense that pupils from all backgrounds can make it if they put in the effort. He also needs to tell them that it does require a lot of hard work to excel at something. People are not given educational advantage by their father’s income alone. They also have to work hard at their better schools if they wish to reach the peaks of academic and professional life.
As someone who made it from a Council house as a young child to a Conservative Cabinet, I was grateful for the ladder of opportunity provided by a free place at a Direct Grant school and a scholarship to Oxford. The 1970s were much more class riven than the noughties. The Oxford place was a solvent of the worst of the clsss barriers. I am glad some of the obvious class divisions have been broken by the changes of the last 30 years, but am conscious that new obstacles have risen that make the journey more difficult for many today. My school did not have all the facilities of an Eton or a Westminster, but it did allow me the freedom to go to other local libraries to find the books I needed to read. Today young people have the amazing world of the web, which is a great leveller.
I am struck by the gap between the average state school and the best of the public schools when I go to speak to 6th formers. There is more intellectual curiosity, academic determination and confidence in the best public schools. It is that which Alan needs to replicate for the brighter pupils in the comprehensives. It is that that has been lost for some of them by the abolition of grammar schools.
My other piece of advcie is to see that educational success is not the only ladder of opportunity. He should turn to consider where entrepreneurs come from. Some of the most successful people I know have achieved a great deal despite or because they had little or no formal education after 16 or 18. They did it by setting up their own business and being successful at that. I suspect that a bigger proportion of the children of entrepreneurs set up in business for themselves than the proportion of the population as a whole. For many in state schools running your own business is not an option, and no-one suggests to them it might be. Schooling is a whirlwind of targets and exam grades, all so often failing to generate that spark of enthusiasm, ignite the passion or release the wild optimism that a good entrepreneur needs.
When you listen to the backgrounds of those who have achieved a great deal in their chosen fields, you often find they followed their chosen area as an interest or a way of life from a very early age. For them, their jobs are not just jobs, a but an integral part of who they are, and what they want to do. The famous antiques presenter on TV usually started collecting and reading about antiques as a boy or girl. The successful sportsman or woman was playing their sport from an early age. The successful academic was usually reading many books in their field well before they went to university. It is those many passions and interests that state schools need to encourage. The best already do, but there is work for Alan to initiaite to get more doing the same.