It takes hard work to become a lawyer, doctor, politician or journalist. Similarly, those who make it as actors often face years of auditions, rejections and obscure, unpaid roles before they achieve any measure of success. Understandably, then, people who do achieve in fields where competition is tough often believe that merit alone has gotten them where they are.
However, for many in these industries, research recently published by the Sutton Trust will make difficult reading. Though only 7% of the UK population attended fee-paying schools, numerous middle-class careers are still dominated by people who were privately educated.
A total of 74% of top judges working in the high court and appeals court attended a fee-paying school. Similarly, almost three quarters of top military officers benefited from a private education. The same is true of 51% of leading print journalists, 61% of top doctors and roughly a third of MPs. Half of Conservative cabinet ministers were privately educated, compared with 13% of the shadow cabinet.
Though hard graft and dedication might enable some people to achieve their dreams against the odds, being born into privilege still gives you a massive boost.
This is partly about the schooling itself. Smaller class sizes and selective admissions policies help students get top grades. What's more, teachers with the time, experience and know-how to perfect personal statements and provide individual interview coaching make it even more likely pupils from private schools are able to get into top universities. This is a vital first step in fields like law, where many employers consider the establishment you attended just as important as the degree classification you obtained.
Pupils from fee-paying schools are five times as likely to get places at Oxbridge as their state-educated peers, despite a drive to widen participation. In some cases, employers who discriminate based on the university attended might even be deliberately attempting to hire applicants from more privileged backgrounds. Some recruiters have admitted they prefer to interview people who attended private schools and Oxbridge because they're more likely to have the "polish" they're looking for.
What this means, in reality, is that those making hiring decisions in fields dominated by the upper middle-classes often like to hire in their own image. Every strata of society has subtly different rules for social interaction, and attempting to fit in can be like learning a foreign language for those who haven't been exposed to similar environments since childhood. Even a regional accent might be enough to make some employers decide an applicant – however otherwise qualified and competent – isn't the right cultural fit.
Individuals who attended private schools will be used to spending time around upper-middle class people. Probably, their own parents will be from that sort of background. Regardless, they'll likely spend time visiting classmates whose mothers and fathers are very much the same kind of people they'll be asking for jobs in the future.
Sometimes, of course, they might also be literally the same people. Another thing that privilege provides is contacts. In competitive industries, many people got their first break because a friend of the family or a school pal's relative decided to do them a favour. Wanting to help out people you know might be natural human behaviour, but kids who attended comps are far less likely to have friends in high places to give them a leg up.
To borrow a video game analogy, people who attended private schools are likely to be playing life in "easy mode"
The final relevant factor is the most obvious one: wealth. Though scholarship and bursary programmes do exist, people who attended fee paying schools are far more likely to have parents who can afford to help them out financially. Given that people trying to get into fields like media are often expected to complete unpaid internships, and careers like acting frequently pay very little in the early stages, it's not surprising those with parental funding are more likely to make it through.
To borrow a video game analogy, people who attended private schools are likely to be playing life in "easy mode". They still have to work to get ahead, but they're provided with opportunities other people lack. What's more, as long as industries like law, media and the arts continue to be dominated by the upper-middle classes it's simply a self-perpetuating cycle. As the Sutton Trust's report shows us, something has to change.
Top employers need to take serious steps to recruit staff from diverse class backgrounds, and if they won't do it out of choice the government needs to step in. Quotas might be too restrictive, but perhaps a carrot rather a stick approach might work. The state could offer cash incentives – offering to contribute to wages for a certain period of time – if companies in certain fields hire people who don't come from money and didn't benefit from private schooling or attend an elite university.
Furthermore, higher education needs to be properly opened up. Though more working-class people than ever before attend university, they're disproportionately likely to attend less prestigious institutions – even if they achieved top grades. Every university should be required to recruit a certain proportion of pupils from state schools, and this should include schools where academic results are below average.
Finally, state school pupils should be able to benefit from some of the additional support provided to to privately educated students. Interview coaching doesn't just help teenagers get into Oxbridge, it's also an extremely important career skill that will benefit them for their whole lives. Perhaps private schools could be matched with local comps, and staff could spend a few days a year providing one-to-one guidance that overstretched public sector teachers can't manage.
If these changes were put in place, the UK might start to become more genuinely meritocratic – though it's difficult to envision that class privilege could ever be mitigated entirely. As things stand now, though, we're really barely even trying.