Election 2024

Election 2024: The rise of the comprehensive kids?

The educational background of a potential Labour administration would look very different to what we're used to, writes Ed Dorrell

The educational background of a potential Labour administration would look very different to what we're used to, writes Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell

29 May 2024, 5:00

Some 50 years after the end of the 11+ in most of the country, Angela Rayner, Rachel Reeves, David Lammy, Yvette Cooper, Wes Streeting and Bridget Philipson will represent a revolution in the educational backgrounds of the governing class if they win the next election.

If the polling predictions come good, the deputy prime minister, the chancellor, the foreign secretary, the home secretary, the health secretary, the education secretary (and more) will all be alumni of state comprehensive schools.

At the very top of government we are likely to find people who share their formative educational experiences of the vast majority of people who voted for them

With the exception of Keir Starmer himself, who is old enough to have been a direct grant pupil, the top tier of the Labour cabinet will have not one former independent or grammar school student in it.

This represents a really significant changing of the guard – a historic transformation in the way we’re governed.

Don’t believe me? Of the corresponding list of Tories, only Gillian Keegan went to a genuinely non-selective comp – and all four great offices of state (PM, chancellor and the home and foreign secretaries) are occupied by privately educated men.

What about Blair’s cabinets, I hear you cry. Well, yes, there were a few politicians dotted about who went to comps or secondary moderns.

But many of the “big beasts” of the New Labour governments were either privately educated or were boomers from the grammar school generation.

‘Key to understanding how they’ll govern’

Some will argue that this is unimportant: that we’re supposed to live in a meritocracy, don’t you know. Others will insist that surely we’re beyond the stage of worrying about who went to what school.

But I would disagree. Should Starmer form the next government, then I believe this change could be key to understanding the psyche of how they will govern.

This is a generation of young politicians who got on in life (yes, yes, mainly via Oxford) often from personal circumstances that in previous generations would have made such advancement very difficult.

They will all say, correctly, that they owed an enormous amount to the teachers and the teaching that they experienced at comprehensive school, a school type that is still too often maligned at the top of both media and politics.

The are also part of a generation who were right at the start of the earlier, often messy efforts to build a reliable pipeline from the kinds of schools they went to into the very best universities.

For example, Wes Streeting is a very early alum of the Sutton Trust summer schools – but that broadly (just) pre-dated Tony Blair’s mass expansion of higher education.

These are people who witnessed, first-hand, the transformational nature of what going to university can represent.

‘They are advocates of the bog standard comp’

What does this mean in practice? In how they would govern?

Well firstly, and most obviously they are advocates of the “bog standard comp”. They don’t hark back to a bygone era of grammar school education or indeed fetishise the great public schools.

Comprehensive education worked for them and they will want it to work for even more young people.

Contrast for example, the attitude of the Blair government, more or less begging the biggest independent schools to open secondary academies (or “lend their DNA” to the state sector), with that of the (probable) next Labour government to tax, tax, tax the sector.

It’s not that most of the shadow cabinet hates private schools; more that they just don’t know very much about them at all. They’re totally *other*. “It wouldn’t even cross their minds to send their kids private,” one member of their Oxford set explained to me.

Similarly, when the age-old debate about reintroducing grammar schools inevitably rears its head again (perhaps in this election), the Labour frontbench will simply have no frame of reference. To them, it would be as weird as post-war rationing.

‘People who share their experiences with the voters’

This mindset is important too when we think about a potential Labour government’s relationship with HE.

Ministers in a Starmer government are unlikely to share the idea – which is very present in Conservative circles these days – that too many young people progress into HE.

Look, for example at Bridget Phillipson’s wonderful advocacy on Question Time last week of working class people’s aspiration to go to uni.

In the face of a right-wing assault on the sector from a fellow panellist, she couldn’t have been clearer. The era of using universities as a pawn in the culture war would be over – with a greater focus on widening participation in its place.

I might, of course, be overstating the policy and political implications of this generational shift – we will probably soon find out.

Even so, it doesn’t make it any the less pleasing that at the very top of government we are likely to find people who share their formative educational experiences of the vast majority of people who voted for them.

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