Dont have an account?Sign up here
If an ambitious parent wants their offspring groomed for the nation’s most powerful jobs, then the solution is simple: it pays to pay. In few walks of life is this mantra so evident as in the Houses of Parliament, that great kaleidoscopic representation of modern British society.
An extraordinary fact: a tenth of all MPs were educated at just 13 schools, 12 of which are independent. This means that over 60 of the nation’s parliamentarians were schooled at a tiny percentage of its schools.
The rise of the public-school-educated MP has gone up since the election, with the increase in Conservative MPs proving that not all stereotypes have been
quashed by their leader David Cameron’s modernising aspirations: 54 per cent of Conservative MPs attended fee-paying schools, compared to 40 per cent of the Liberal Democrat total and just 15 per cent of Labour MPs. Or, rather more starkly, seven per cent of the population is educated independently, compared to 35 per cent of MPs.
There’s no gold star for guessing which school tops the MP-production line. Eton College, with 20 MPs, is the only school with a double-figure tally to its name. Leading the Eton field is, of course, the prime minister David Cameron, closely followed by policy guru Oliver Letwin, and prominent members of the new intake such as Zac Goldsmith and Jo Johnson. Hugo Swire, the Northern Ireland minister, is an alumnus, as is James Arbuthnot, the chairman of the defence select committee. Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso is the sole non-Tory in the list, although his full title is the third Viscount Thurso.
It’s an impressive tally, if not quite the nine-strong old Etonian cabinet presided over by prime minister Harold Macmillan, himself a product of Eton.
Behind Windsor’s finest, again to little surprise, comes a smattering of the country’s most expensive public schools. With 14 fewer MPs than Eton, Millfield School claims second spot with six current MPs. Former pupils now found in Parliament are Margot James, Ben Wallace, Ian Liddell-Grainger, Charlotte Leslie, Julian Smith, and, as the sole Lib Dem amongst an otherwise Conservative contingent, David Heath. Labour’s Ruth Kelly, MP from 1997 to 2010, also attended.
Says Margot James, a member of the 2010 intake: “There was an exceptional politics A-level teacher called Clive Thomas who was an inspiration, instilling in his classes a passion for the subject that motivated you to want to go on to study the subject at university and work in the field.”
James and Wallace recently discussed the positive influence of Mr Thomas. “He inspired the whole class, lots of whom are still involved in politics. Without him
I doubt I’d be here now,” Wallace recalls. “The school didn’t place debating high up in its priorities – it was much more focused on sport. Mr Thomas taught political philosophy and British politics. To this day, I never knew how he voted.”
Westminster School is also found amongst the top echelons, with five Old ‘Wets’ – including the Lib Dem pairing of Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne – now sitting in the Commons. Charterhouse counts Jeremy Hunt and Tim Yeo amongst its five MPs – fellow Old Carthusians are Jeremy Paxman and the four founder members of
1970s plod-rockers Genesis.
If political success is guaranteed at the top tier of fee-paying schools, what distinguishes the next batch of schools – including grammars, comprehensive, and the second string of independent schools – is a little less clear.
Nottingham High School boasts a grand tally of four MPs – former defence secretary Geoff Hoon is also an old boy. Its elder statesman is Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, while three from different parties – Labour’s Ed Balls, Tory James Morris, and Lib Dem Ed Davey– all overlapped. Balls was a head of house, and Davey head of school.
Speaking to The House Magazine Morris, who entered Parliament in 2010, attempts to explain the purple patch: “We had some really good teachers, particularly in English and history, who encouraged questioning and probing, and there was a debating society – run jointly with Nottingham Girls High School – which had some pretty lively political debates.” Did he spot the rise of former cabinet member and government minister Balls? “I always thought Ed Davey and Ed Balls were destined for great things!” says Morris, perhaps diplomatically.
The current headmaster is Kevin Fear, a man understandably proud of the school’s achievements: “The current generation are definitely aware of many of the people who came here,” Fear explains. “We have a politics society at school, and the boys are generally interested in that. Ed Balls was chairman, and he regularly comes back to address the current members.”
Why the school produced three MPs in two years is harder to pinpoint, though Fear offers his best theory. “It’s a down-to-earth, inner city school, which produces well-rounded boys who are given responsibility. Morris, Balls, and Davey all helped to organise events, societies and activities, and all were prefects.”
With fees of £3,624 a term at Nottingham High School, a decent teacher or two and a well-run debating society might be expected. The hand-picked pupils can be trusted with the running of their own clubs and societies in a way that other would-be politicians may not in a less selective environment.
Reading School is the sole non-fee-paying school in Parliament’s top 12, with four MPs currently at Westminster. Andrew Smith, the former Labour work and pensions secretary, is the oldest, closely followed by a trio of Tory MPs in Oliver Heald, Damian Green, and Mark Field. Like Morris at Nottingham, Heald, speaking to The House Magazine, picks out a teacher, and the debating society, as the inspirations for the would-be teenage politicians.
“We were all taught by the most marvellous history master called Frank Terry, who gave us a great interest in current affairs,” Heald explains, adding that Reading’s MP quartet were all present for Terry’s 90th birthday celebrations. “There was also a very stronng debating society. I was chairman for a year, Damian Green took over from me, and Mark Field was later a member. We were very lucky. It was a wonderful grammar school.”
However, as a grammar, it still selects on ability. Perhaps more worthy of note are the comprehensive or secondary modern schools, where the advantages of Eton are a world away, which send MPs to Westminster. Most impressive in this category is Lochaber High School, which claims three MPs in Charles Kennedy, Fiona O’Donnell and Danny Alexander.
“Ah, the Eton of the North,” laughs O’Donnell, who was in the same year as Kennedy. Again, the twin assets of an inspirational teacher and well-honed debating society are singled out.
“The school had a head of English, Bob Dick, who ran a debating society. It became both very popular and successful,” O’Donnell recalls. However, she also believes that the area was key.“Fort William was a close-knit community. Everyone went to the same school, and there was a sense that there wasn’t anything which I couldn’t achieve.”
Jim Sutherland, the school’s headmaster, says the pair remain involved in the school. “Charles Kennedy and Fiona were debating partners at school. Charles lives locally and takes a keen interest in his old school, often visiting Modern Studies classes. Earlier this year he delivered the ‘Immortal Memory’ at the school’s Burns Supper.”
Lochaber is not alone as a state school bucking what seems to be a national trend. And since 1979, the percentage of independently educated MPs has fallen from 49 to the current figure of 35, which suggests that Parliament is moving, slowly as ever, into line with society – despite the 2010 spike in privately educated MPs.
But in the week after schools secretary Michael Gove – a former scholar at the independent Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen – was accused of freezing the budgets necessary to bring many of the nation’s state schools into the 21st century, the message from Westminster is clear. More often than not, for those not lucky enough to know a Mr Thomas or a Mr Terry, it’s not what you know, but where you learnt it.
This article first appeared in The House Magazine.