The Sutton Trust at 15

By Sir Peter Lampl

It is fifteen years since I set up the Sutton Trust to improve social mobility in this country. I wanted to ensure that bright children from low or middle income homes had a fair chance of going to a top university and into a leading profession or occupation.

There has been progress in the last fifteen years, but our elites remain largely closed to those without the right school tie and networks, as our research report based on the birthday lists of national newspapers highlighted again this week.

Perhaps most importantly there is now a political consensus that improving social mobility is the major social issue of our time. The 120 research projects and over 200 programmes that we have funded have helped put it there.

At our anniversary lunch on Tuesday, which was attended by 200 supporters and allies of the Trust, it was great to be joined both by David Blunkett – the secretary of state with whom I first worked as chair of the Trust – and Michael Gove, who gave a characteristically eloquent and generous speech about our work.

We have had strong support from all the leaders of all three main political parties over the years, and I was delighted with the generous comments made by David Cameron and Ed Miliband for our anniversary video.

The Trust’s first major programme – university summer schools at leading universities – have helped to narrow the participation gap at our elite universities. In 1997, 49 per cent of entrants to Oxbridge were from state schools; now it is 59 per cent, though it is still below the two-thirds from state schools when I was there.

Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that there has also been some narrowing of the gap in higher education participation more widely: at age 18 or 19 the gap between state school students from the most and least deprived fifths of the population fell from 40 percentage points in 2004-05 to 37 percentage points in 2009-10.

At the same time, some professions, notably law, are now reaching out more to young people of all backgrounds with the help of programmes like Pathways to Law which we developed in partnership with the College of Law and major law firms. More generally, the quality of teaching and leadership is better in urban schools, especially in London.

But we still have a long way to go to open up opportunities. This week’s report showed again how our independent schools educate 7 per cent of the population, but 44 per cent of leading people were privately educated. More than 12 per cent of our elites went to just ten independent schools, with one in 25 at Eton alone.

Our schools are still the most socially segregated among advanced nations. Our independent day schools remain closed to 90 per cent of families who can’t afford the fees, unlike the situation when I was growing up, when 70% of them were principally state funded.  That is why we continue to argue for a state-funded Open Access scheme which half the independent day schools have said they would adopt if funding were available. This would transform mobility at the top.

So what about the future? Improving social mobility is like the war on cancer. It will never be won. Yet with the right research, the right programmes and working closely with government, we can improve mobility and make a real difference to many more lives.

So I’m determined that the Sutton Trust will continue to provide the vehicle for that work, long into the future.

We’re expanding our work, so we can do the research and undertake the programmes that will make a difference from early childhood right through to access to the professions. We’re keen to build on existing partnerships and develop new ones.

Working together, we have made a big difference. I hope that we will continue to make an even bigger difference.

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