Half of the British Army's officer corps is privately educated. Does that matter? - Spectator Blogs

31 January 2013

2:52 PM

31 January 2013

2:52 PM

An interesting spot, courtesy of the good chaps at Think Defence. From Hansard:

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of new recruits to the Army at (a) soldier and (b) officer level previously attended state school.

Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire, Conservative)
The proportion of soldier recruits that had previously attended a state school is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Including the most recent intake of officer cadets to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in January 2013, 53.5% of the UK educated intake over the last 12 months came from state schools. While the remainder will have come from independent schools, it is possible that some will have attended a state school at an earlier point in their education.

This may not be surprising. Even so, the fact that nearly 50 per cent of army officers still come from the public schools is worth half a raised eyebrow at least. Half the army’s officer corps is drawn from less than 10 per cent of the population.

But this is a matter of incentives and encouragement more than anything else. I don’t know how many Cadet units still remain operational these days. Rather fewer than used to be the case, I imagine. Of those that do, many of them are long-established in the public schools.


I never much cared for the CCF myself. Like the other slackers I joined the RAF section (shirkers joined the Navy, hearties the Army) and only rose as far as Corporal. Nevertheless, all those Wednesday afternoons (to say nothing of compulsory camps) plainly did their job. The CCF exists, after all, to encourage youngsters to consider a career in the military.

And it works! My own school may not have been typical but, if my memory is correct, nearly 10 per cent of the boys in my year joined up as officers. Perhaps my own year group was atypical but I do not recall it being so. The army claimed a handful of recruits every year.

That will happen when you encourage* teenage boys to play soldiers and, simply by giving them the opportunity to do so, encourage them to consider an army career. And so though the percentage of privately-educated cadets at Sandhurst seems high (this being 2012 and all that) it should probably be remembered that a high percentage of public school pupils have the opportunity to play soldiers while (I imagine) a rather lower percentage of state-school kids get that chance. Factor this into consideration and those Sandhurst figures become something closer to what you might expect. (Of course, the figures for the Royal Navy and the RAF may be different.)

There is also, I suppose, a lingering sense of obligation. Or, if not of obligation, then of a tradition to be maintained and this too may have something to do with it.

It’s different in the United States. Since the draft ended (all hail Milton Friedman!), you regularly read articles worrying that too few members of America’s “elites” join the army. I don’t know how significant that is but it’s something that worries some commentators from time to time but is, evidently, not something that could be said about the British army.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. But an interesting factoid anyway.

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Show comments
  • Jennifer Martin

    I seems really amazing when the army officers carry the royal navy sword along with them.

  • OCdt X

    You people are completely wrong, I don’t know where you got these statistics from, but I am in the intake that this photo is displaying, and i know that 50% of the OCdts here aren’t privately educated. You sir, are a liar.

  • LEngland

    ‘Does that matter ?’ You mean, the fact that it is only half ?

  • alex1989

    As someone who has just completed the process and soon to be at RMAS I felt I would lend my view to the debate. Although its not my main focus of my comment, in terms of getting a larger cultural cross section of young men/women into the process in the first place, more needs to be done to encourage officers from ethnic minorities. Either through breaking down barriers through visit days to units, school talks etc however long term cultural perceptions (from both sides) are seldom broken down overnight.

    My decision to join was made late (just before last christmas) but the process is the same for everyone these days. Gone are the days where regimental sponsor allowed those whose fathers were in the army to bypass the system. This bred resentment and just because the father might have been a ‘good chap’ did not mean the son was able or even sometimes willing.

    The selection process is rigorous and includes many stages which take around 6-12 months to complete. The tests assess every possible aspect of the potential cadet. It includes extensive psychometric and physical tests, delivering a lecturette, essay writing, general knowledge quiz and debate on current affairs. The fact many leading CEO’s and HR directors visit westbury is testament to a system which delivers ‘the best’ type of person for Army leadership.

    I do agree that many traditions and aspects of the Army are still seen as privileged and labelled by some as ‘outdated’. However even as someone hailing from a non military family, it is my belief traditions are what breeds loyalty and a sense of duty and therefore to dismiss these would undermine an organisation with centuries of history. Regimental visits can be daunting in this regard, especially the Cavalry but if you command respect professionally, opportunities are available.

    As a last point, personally speaking and meeting many others in the process, young men and women want to do the job for a variety of reasons. The main ones are through a sense of duty, opportunity to make a meaningful difference and a sense of adventure. Many could have taken the perceived ‘easy option’ and gone into a career in the city. Second incomes in 99% of cases are a thing of the past. Although there are going to be a few that slip through the net, as is with anything in life.

    Personally and I realise with a certain amount of bias (!) future British Army Officers are well selected and, by the time they pass fresh faced through Sandhurst and become hardened to the every day grind of regimental life mainly through their sergeants, are well equipped to be good leaders in potentially hazardous and dynamic times!

  • Steven McGregor

    “Does it matter? Perhaps not. But an interesting factoid anyway.”

    i’m confused. what’s the point? as to your conjecture about the USA, it’s wrong. most enlisted recruits come from middle to upper class backgrounds. maybe ‘regularly read articles’ aren’t a good way to learn about the military?

  • Bob339

    Officers are worthless, counterproductive, arrogant and stupid. Cameron and Gideon are from the best schools are they not? And look what a great job they are doing. Boris went to the best schools and look what a fine man he is! There should be one of these types on every lamppost.

    • OldSlaughter

      “Officers are worthless, counterproductive, arrogant and stupid.”

      Standard rhetoric, speak to any LE though and this chat dries up fast. Wear your chip with pride and enjoy your ability to see but 5m in front of you.

    • Steven McGregor

      good grief, bob. could i strongly disagree w/ you? yeah, some Os are jerks but man, why generalise? unless you’re like a First Sergeant somewhere. then maybe i can see your point.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Worthless, counterproductive, arrogant and stupid, eh? Pretty much like your comment “Bob”, so we might speculate that you are worthless, counterproductive, arrogant and stupid too. Certainly sounds like it.

  • C. Gee

    I am amazed that as much as half of army officers are state school educated. What went wrong? I thought the history curriculum had dumped patriotism and martial values in its trash can. I thought sociology had finished ambition to rank higher than ordinary. But come to think of it, the army is as good a social welfare organization as any other government institution: job security, bennies, preferment, pensions, pay almost equivalent to the brothers working in state education.

    To be really interesting, this factoid might be supplemented with statistics on numbers of applications from each source, the acceptance rate and the proportion of state to private schooled officers for each rank.

  • Daniel Maris

    I don’t think the class dominance of the British Army helps military effectiveness. Tactics in Afghanistan have been appalling. Anyone who saw the British soldiers led into an abandoned compound (which had been booby-trapped with mines) would wonder at our tactics. The public school ethos of teh officer class also, I think, tends to encourage a

    “Lead through confidence” approach. The British Army officer seems to think if he walks into an area with his head held sufficiently high and makes announcements in an authoritative manner then the rest will follow. There seems to be, to my mind, a reluctance to analyse cultures and power structures in a sophisticated manner.

    • OldSlaughter

      “There seems to be, to my mind, a reluctance to analyse cultures and power structures in a sophisticated manner.”

      And you think it is a public school education that hinders this? Ummm. You sound like you have no first hand knowledge whatsoever.

    • Grrr8

      Ergo the ‘born to rule’ problem? DC and GO come to mind as well. Talking in an authoritative manner, assuming the rest will follow 🙂

    • Steven McGregor

      are you an actual general, Mr Maris–or just an armchair one?

    • Colonel Mustard

      And what would you know about “Tactics”?

  • Daniel Maris

    Why not google it. Here’s one bit of London:

    “City of London and North East Sector ACF has detachments in Albion
    Road, Barking, Burnham Street, Clifton
    Street, Dagenham, East Ham, Hainault, Ilford, Mile End Road, Newbury Park, Parkhurst Road, Romford, South Hornchurch, Upminster, West Ham, Weston Walk, Whipps Cross and Woodford Green.”

    Seem to be plenty of (non-posh) cadets around my way.

    Given the reduction in the armed forces numbers I am not sure there is going to be any shortage of recruits.

  • Roger Hudson

    In my first teaching post in the early 1970s I helped to run the schools ( boys grammar changing with much strife into a boys comprehensive) ACF, army cadet force. The school even had a small armoury. In 1977 I joined the TA for eight years.
    State schools had ‘Cadet Forces’ and public (private) schools had ‘Officer Training Corps’ , which tells us all we need to know.
    The British Army is still very class conscious , the current debate and articles in the Telegraph about forces job cuts show this. To dine in the Lifeguards Officers Mess in Germany was a real experience.
    A classic example of this was when I joined the TA, during the selection period we soon discovered , when calling out our army numbers, that not all Troopers were equal, other ranks having an eight digit number but those with six digit numbers were actually men with a commission in another unit trying to transfer. The problem was that these ‘trooperts’ later got promoted back to officer, blocking the progress of others even though some were barristers or stock brokers.
    Time for the New Model Army.

    • GMB Dawidek

      Even in 1977 the public schools had cadet forces as well. In general state school teachers disappear at 3.30 whereas public school masters and mistresses have to stay on and supervise activities such as the CCF. The OTCs were confined to Universities.

    • OldSlaughter

      You have not made a case why it requires change. Also OTC is about university. And as a comprehensive school ex-member I don’t recognise your outdated whine.

  • In2minds

    “I don’t know how many Cadet units still remain operational these days” – I think you will find that unlike posh kids children at inner city schools are not keen on guns.

  • Fergus Pickering

    The army compares very favourably with the police, does it not? Perhaps that is BECAUSE of the Public School ethos.

  • Grrr8

    I wonder if another contributing factor is the low pay of officers. If so, then it makes sense that people who are independently wealthy (and more likely to be educated privately) sign up (this also aligns with your comment re: giving back).

    As to whether it matters? I suspect it does simply because I doubt the average working class private/ enlisted man is quite as craven to his upper class officer as Downtown Abbey suggests. Then again, maybe all these distinctions disappear in a warzone.

  • Eddie

    The problem with the army in Britian is that, unlike in the US, there is little chance of someone from the lower ranks gaining officer status and proceeding to General level. Why not? Because the whole set up is deeply class-bound.
    Very few middle class ethnic minorities want to join the army (accountancy and IT and the city, yes), and most black/Asian soldiers are as working class as the whites, hence hardly any ethnic or unprivileged soldiers progress. That is a waste of talent.
    The OTC operates at better universities. Also, many public schools have corps, and there are such things as ‘army families’.
    No doubt a comparable number of doctors and surgeons are privately educated too.

  • NiceTeaParty

    A shame then that when you hear some officer chaps these days they speak not of duty to Queen and Country but gameplaying on their PlayStation.

    • In2minds

      We should all feel proud that, perhaps, our future King has such well developed thumbs.

      • LEngland

        God help us if that pompous, non – Windsor self – aggrandising Inadequate graduates to Monarchy !