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The new cabinet is a win for education and social mobility

With the dust settling on this dramatic general election, which has seen the highest ever proportion of MPs educated at comprehensive schools elected, it’s worth focusing our attention on the new Labour cabinet.

Sir Keir Starmer’s first cabinet is drastically more diverse in terms of education background than his predecessors’. Of its 25 members, 23 went to comprehensive schools, only one was privately educated, while the new prime minister himself attended a grammar school.

It’s worth noting that Starmer’s own education isn’t as straightforward to classify. His school was state selective grammar when he started there, and while his place remained state-funded throughout his secondary education, the school went on to become independent two years into his time there. He and his year group would not have paid fees.

And although defence secretary John Healey and Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn have spent some time in private education, most of their education between the ages of 11 and 16 was in fact been spent in comprehensive schools.

This means that, at 92 per cent, this cabinet is the closest in many years to genuinely reflecting the 88 per cent of the UK population who went to comprehensive schools. In comparison, only 19 per cent of Rishi Sunak’s November 2023 cabinet attended comprehensive schools.

In that cabinet, 63 per cent were privately educated, 53 per cent attended Oxbridge, and 41 per cent went both to an independent school and Oxbridge. Liz Truss’ short-lived cabinet, meanwhile, included 68 per cent from private schools, 35 per cent Oxbridge graduates, but a lower proportion of those who attended both independent schools and Oxbridge (26 per cent).

Nonetheless, Sunak’s cabinet featured a lower proportion of independently-educated cabinet members than previous Conservative administrations such as John Major’s (71 per cent in 1992) and Margaret Thatcher’s (91 per cent in 1979). And 32 per cent of those attending cabinet under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were privately educated, as were 25 per cent of Clement Attlee’s first cabinet.

Some might wonder whether, in 2024, the educational background of our political leaders still matters.I would argue that it absolutely does. In government and politics as in other fields such as business, law, media and the arts, social diversity is key to ensuring we make the most of the talents of people from all backgrounds more widely.

This represents real progress towards smashing the class ceiling in politics

This is particularly important for those who rise to the top in politics. It indicates whether opportunities to reach the most sought-after positions in government are equitably distributed, and whether those powerful positions draw on the talents of all sections of the population.

But crucially, the education background of our government matters because those who occupy these roles make decisions and take daily actions that affect everyone in the country. As people are naturally shaped by their background and life experiences, for a healthy society it is vital that these roles reflect all geographical areas and social backgrounds.

After all, it’s frequently the decisions made by those in the highest positions that have the deepest impact on the life chances of those who are less well-off.

Although Starmer’s cabinet represents real progress towards smashing the class ceiling in politics, this will mean little if it doesn’t also deliver policies that will help tackle ongoing barriers that are preventing many young people from getting on in life.

The Sutton Trust recently set out a fully-costed manifesto, with recommendations for tackling some of the most urgent educational inequality issues: equalising access to early education and childcare, closing the attainment gap in schools between disadvantaged pupils and their peers and increasing financial support for students, with maintenance grants reintroduced for those from low-income families.

And to help create an environment in which parliament can recruit more talent from all parts of society, political parties should review whether their candidate selection processes are easily accessible to individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds.

They should also look at running support schemes and mentoring programmes aimed at increasing their representation, similar to existing schemes to improve gender or ethnic diversity. Once such shemes and programmes are in place, it will be important to monitor and anonymously report on the socio-economic background of those that apply to become candidates for their party.

Clearly, this government inherits a challenging economic environment, with limited room for manoeuvre on public spending. But delivering tangible change in widening opportunity will be vital to supporting social cohesion and long-term economic growth.

The government must lose no time in taking steps to advance social mobility and bring about a revolution in opportunity for future generations.

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