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The public school elite that still runs the West Country's politics

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: November 17, 2013

The Bodleian Library of Oxford University. A number of West Country MPs followed the well-trodden path along the banks of the Isis to the halls of Westminster

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The West Country is being ruled by privately educated politicians with the majority of MPs attending independent fee-paying schools.

After former Prime Minister Sir John Major described the dominance of a private-school educated elite as "truly shocking" the Western Daily Press decided to check out the background of West politicians.

And it shows that 20 of the 36 politicians representing the region in the Commons went to private school, including fee-paying grammar schools.

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Despite fewer than 10 per cent of the population as a whole attending public schools, more than half of West MPs (56 per cent) were educated in the independent sector.

See our full list here.

Yet if the Commons reflected the general population as whole there would be just three privately educated MPs in the West Country.

Five of the 36 MPs went to Eton, David Cameron and George Osborne's old school, and 16 followed the well-worn path from Oxford or Cambridge universities to Westminster.

Just 13 (36 per cent) of the MPs went to comprehensive schools, even though these educate more than 90 per cent of the population as a whole. Three MPs went to grammar schools.

Earlier this year Hereford MP Jesse Norman, a former Cameron aide, caused a national uproar by telling The Times there are so many of his fellow old Etonians in the Government because "other schools don't have the same commitment to public service".

But Sir John – who went to a grammar school in south London and left with three Olevels – says the assumption that fee-paying schools produce all the talent is wrong.

"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class," he said. To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking. Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born."

After what was seen as a thinly veiled attack on the Prime Minister who was educated at Eton and Oxford, David Cameron said he hired people "on the basis of are they are the right person to do the job". But he said he agreed with "the thrust" of John Major's argument.

"Look at the make-up of Parliament, the judiciary, the Army, the media – it's not as diverse... there's not as much social mobility as there needs to be," he said.

"I do believe it's not good enough just to make changes and sit back. Just opening the door and saying we're in favour of equality of opportunity – that's not enough.

"You've got to get out there and find people, win them over, get them to raise aspirations and get them to think that they can get all the way to the top."

Chamber of Commerce chairman John Savage, the dominant personality of Bristol's business community for the past two decades and former High Sheriff, believes the lack of social mobility wastes talent the country needs.

"What John Major said is the truth, but it's not just about education," he said. "It's much easier for those with opportunistic links to get into these positions, people with advantages tend to take control and the system perpetuates itself.

"MPs come through a very narrow selection process involving a very small pool of people so it does need to change. The system allows the elite to stay in control, but the big question is how do you change it in a sensible way that retains democracy? We need a fresh approach to equality."

As the row continued Wilkliam Hague agreed it would be harder for him to rise through the ranks today and Kevin Brennan, Labour's shadow schools minister, said: "David Cameron has shown shocking complacency towards the one million young people unemployed under him. Now he tells them that they lack aspiration. It is he who is locking out opportunity for the next generation and standing up only for a privileged few."

In the West Country, three West Country MPs followed Mr Major by leaving education before university – Monmouth's David Davies, Filton's Jack Lopresti and Tiverton's Neil Parish.

But being posh is not always a bonus and North Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg once feared his accent would stop him being selected as a Conservative candidate.

Liam Fox appears to be the West MP who has risen the furthest from his humble background, the former GP and defence minister was born in a Scottish council house and attended state schools.

Similarly, Immigration Minister Mark Harper still managed to get into Oxford University and become an accountant even though he attended a Swindon comprehensive with poor exam results.

Last month retired Taunton English teacher James MacPherson expressed disappointment that many politicians tried to hide their old school in an effort to appeal to the 93 per cent who were not privately educated. His comments followed a Commons spat between West MP Martin Horwood and Labour's Chris Bryant which dated back to when they were classmates at the private Cheltenham College.

But it's not just politics and when the Sutton Trust examined the educational backgrounds of 8,000 movers and shakers in politics, business, the arts, public life and sport, it found that 44 per cent were privately educated and just 10 per cent went to comprehensives.

More than 68 per cent of top jobs in the public sector went to the privately educated.

Eton has produced a raft of well known actors and Chris Martin met Coldplay manager Phil Harvey when they both boarded at Sherborne School.

Marlborough is among the top ten public schools for producing influential pupils according to the Sutton Trust.

Education Secretary Michael Gove, who went to private school on a scholarship, agrees with Mr Major and admitted: "He's right. It is an inescapable fact. We're reforming the system so the opportunities that wealthy children have are more equally spread."

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  • Charlespk  |  November 17 2013, 9:48AM

    IMO that's just more 'class war' propaganda. Those that have got their heads screwed on are the ones that actually rise to the top 'just beneath the surface' in all walks of life. The public and private school education just equips the others better for some of the more mundane aspects of 'officialdom' that the others probably aren't really interested in. And you have to be pretty stupid to disregard some of the extraordinary minds and abilities of the top Oxbridge graduates. We need them now more than ever before.

  • MaryD  |  November 16 2013, 3:57PM

    groundnut - Politicians hands are too busy going through our pockets to see what they can steal.

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  • groundnut  |  November 16 2013, 2:09PM

    Recently an Oxford University admissions administrator at a University Conference discussing entrants. Said the Universities would in Future be concentrating on the academically bright from whatever background. rather than those who attended public School from well funded families. And were polished for UNI entrance but were in fact" thick" Any politicians putting their hand up. ?