Justine Greening is wrong to pick on Eton

1 May 2018 12:37 PM

Justine Greening

The former education secretary, Justine Greening, has urged firms to discriminate against applicants from Eton on the grounds that it is easier to get good A level grades if you’ve been to Eton rather than a comprehensive. There are several odd things about her statement.

First, why single out Eton? In terms of A level passes at grade A* or A, Eton is 12th in the independent school league table, behind Westminster, Wycombe Abbey, St Paul’s and City of London School for Girls, among others. Cardiff Sixth Form College is top, with 91.9 per cent of its students gaining A* or A in their A levels last year. I guess urging employers to discriminate against applicants from a sixth form in Cardiff wouldn’t have generated the same headlines.

Second, how many Etonians are going to be applying for jobs at 18 or 19, where the critical factor will be their A level results? According to Eton’s own stats, only four boys in 2015 started their career upon leaving the school, while 261 of the class of 267 went on to university. So is Greening urging employers to discriminate against the tiny handful of Etonians each year who apply for jobs at the age of 18 or 19? Not sure how much that will do to boost social mobility.

Third, Greening referenced ‘contextual recruitment’ in her speech and said that ‘software’ is available that enables employers to put this into practice. What this software does is ‘contextualise’ A level results by taking the postcode of the applicant into account – and just the postcode – so if two people apply for the same job with the same grades, the one from the more deprived postcode will be judged more impressive. But Greening is overlooking the fact that approximately 70 Etonians in each class of 267 are on means-tested full bursaries, which means they’re likely to live in the postcodes the contextual recruitment software will value more highly. So is Greening urging firms to modify this software so it discriminates against applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds if they happen to have gone to Eton? That will subtract from social mobility, not add to it.

Finally, Greening commits the common mistake of over-estimating the effect schools have on attainment. Secondary school exam results are between 50 and 60 per cent heritable and insofar as differences in the environment influence those results, the impact of schools is negligible once you control for different pupil characteristics. The general consensus is that schools alone account for less than 10 per cent of the variation in educational attainment – and I recently contributed to a research study that found their contribution is less than one per cent.

Greening may not realise it, but she’s given a massive endorsement to Eton, effectively claiming that it’s such a good school – so far ahead of every other school when it comes to the positive effect it has on its pupils’ A level results – that employers should take the boys exam results with a large dose of salt. It’s total balls of course, but if I was the headmaster of Eton I’d stick her speech in the next school prospectus.