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11 July 2024

Starmer's state-schooled cabinet is unusually reflective of Britain

Jack Brown

Its immediate three predecessors, by contrast, were all over 60 per cent private-schooled

Keir Starmer and his cabinet
Image: Crown Copyright

There will reportedly now be 25 ministers attending cabinet, although the exact number of full members, ministers attending, and last minute appointments are still in flux. Who are they, and where do they come from?

A great deal has been made of the social class and educational background of this cabinet so far – and rightly so. In opposition, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson described “probably one of the most class-conscious shadow cabinets that we’ve had for some time”. Now in government, the cabinet stands out as remarkably state school-educated, by historic standards.

Of the 25 ministers currently listed as attending cabinet, only two were privately educated for most of their schooling, meaning that eight per cent of current cabinet attendees were educated mainly in independent schools. That is close to the national average, which is around six or seven percent.

It stands in stark contrast to the 23 per cent of current parliamentarians overall who attended private schools, and the over 30 per cent seen in every single post-war cabinet to date. It says something about British society that, in being broadly reflective of the rest of the country, this administration is highly unusual.

There are, of course, a couple of caveats. Two further cabinet members experienced private education at some point in their lives: one attended a private prep school before attending a school known as “the socialist Eton”, and another attended a private sixth form. Prime Minister Keir Starmer attended a grammar school, which subsequently went private during his time there, meaning that he benefitted in part from a private education, although he received bursaries for this and did not pay fees.

So perhaps we can add a couple of percentage points for good measure, and say that something like nine or 10 percent of the cabinet’s education was in the independent sector. The Sutton Trust’s claim that the cabinet is just 4 percent privately educated does not include ministers formally outside of the cabinet but attending, and nor does it count those who attended private schools for only part of their education. But it is absolutely not misleading. This cabinet is still the most state-school educated in the post-war era. Its immediate three predecessors were all over 60 per cent private-schooled. This is quite something.

Given this, it is perhaps all the more remarkable that two cabinet ministers – Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell – attended the same school. This has been the case in many previous cabinets, although the school has tended to be the all-male fee-paying Eton College. In this case, it is Parrs Wood High School in Manchester. Drayton Manor High School in London has also produced two ministers outside of the cabinet: Lord Coaker and Steven Kinnock.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves and her sister Ellie Reeves, herself Chair of the Labour Party and Minister without Portfolio, attended the same state school in suburban south London, as did sisters and ministers Angela and Maria Eagle on Merseyside. The Miliband brothers attended Haverstock Comprehensive School in London, although only one is currently in the Labour government. Even in this particularly socially mobile administration, it remains a somewhat small world.

While many cabinet attendees could describe themselves as having grown up in working class homes, all bar one are university graduates. None have long histories of performing unskilled or semi-skilled manual work. Even those from working-class families tend to have gone into middle-class occupations following university.

Perhaps they have the last Labour government to thank for this. As the UK transitioned to an economy ever-more dominated by services rather than goods, New Labour sought to increase university attendance dramatically. Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent of young people attending university was achieved in England for the first time in 2017-18. 

The expansion of access to higher education has been remarkable. In 1990, when some members of this Cabinet were at university themselves, participation in higher education was at just 19.3 per cent. In 1970, when Keir Starmer was at school, it was 8.4 per cent. In 1950, just three years before the oldest member of this Cabinet was born, only 3.4 percent of the population attended university, making higher education a truly elite privilege.

What did those sitting round the cabinet table study? The current cabinet attendee list has five members who studied history at undergraduate or master’s level, (more than did the “traditional” PPE at Oxford), and 10 who studied politics or political science in some form. So 20 per cent of cabinet attendees are historians, and a further 40 per cent studied politics.

Rishi Sunak’s last cabinet, from November 2023 to July 2024, was attended by 33 ministers, of which nine had studied history (over a quarter), 18 were Oxbridge graduates (over half) and five studied politics without history, all of whom did PPE at Oxford (15 per cent).

Historians are clearly seen as useful to prime ministers. As are those who have studied politics.

Perhaps the ideal course of study for a future cabinet minister, civil servant, special adviser or politics-adjacent professional would be one that blended a practical, hands-on study of how government really works in practise, with rigorous historical analysis of the recent past?

The Strand Group’s new MA Government Studies, launching in September this year, does just this. It is designed to help future practitioners of government, whether politicians, civil servants or those working in associated sectors, to become better decision-makers, adding a historical dimension to their practise.

Understanding how government has worked (and failed) in the past provides a useful toolkit for shaping a response to new challenges. Engaging directly with former and current practitioners will enable our students to add an applied element to their academic studies, blending theory and practice. And it is great fun.

Not only will this programme prepare the next generation of policymakers, but it has a social purpose at its core. The Strand Group has gone to great efforts to convince our friends in business, trusts and foundations and high-net-worth individuals to “sponsor” places on our new MA, to ensure that this “elite” education is not just for existing elites. We have managed to fund, interview and allocate a total of eight full-fee studentships for our first year. But we are hungry for more. If you can help, get in touch.

Dr Jack Brown is Lecturer in London Studies at King’s College London and teaches on Strand Group courses.