Comment: The Tories’ Eastleigh candidate speaks ignorant nonsense on state schools

By Michael Pyke

Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, apparently believes that her "very gifted" son would find it "impossible" to achieve his ambition of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon if he did not attend a private school.

Our view at Case is that the children of politicians should be left alone and that their education ought not to be a matter for public debate, especially one initiated by one of their parents.  However, as Ms Hutchings has made a public pronouncement, we are obliged to point out that the evidence is against her.

In 2011, the last year for which widely published figures are available, 72% of those studying medicine had attended a state school.  This figure is slightly higher than we might expect, given that 30% of all A-levels are sat by pupils at highly selective private schools.  If giftedness includes the ability to distinguish between evidence and prejudice, it appears that young Master Hutchings has not inherited it from his mother.

This is not to deny that attending the kind of school that charges £30k+ per annum confers a wide range of advantages, not least the acquisition of valuable social capital, but too much of the debate about "social mobility" ignores the many years that elapse between attending school and reaching the top of a profession.  For example, we are constantly reminded that more than 60% of High Court judges have been privately educated but, with an average age of 61, these people were at school far too long ago for us to be drawing conclusions about what is happening in schools today.

What we do know is that, while there is still a very long way to go before we can claim to have a genuinely fair and meritocratic education system, the achievements of state schools are routinely underestimated by politicians, journalists and the metropolitan chatterati.

For example, the proportion of state-educated Oxbridge students has never been higher and has more than doubled since the 1960s, when state secondary schooling was almost wholly selective.  An important factor in this has been the modular A-level system, introduced in 2000, which has enabled colleges to have first-hand evidence of real academic ability, instead of having to rely on interviews and teachers' predictions. Naturally, the blundering and inept Michael Gove plans to abolish this system.

Research by the Sutton Trust, among others, consistently shows that at Russell Group universities it is the state educated students who obtain the best degrees.  Much is made of the private school background of the present Cabinet but it is entirely feasible that the next prime minister and a majority of his cabinet will have attended comprehensive schools.

It would have been honest of Maria Hutchings to say that, as a parent who can afford it, she intends to purchase what social and educational advantages she can for her child.  What she has actually said is ignorant nonsense, of a kind with which we are all too familiar from politicians.

Michael Pyke is a spokesperson for CASE, the Campaign for State Education.

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