Education: an equal opportunity?

As the news broke recently that qualifying as a barrister could leave students with a bill of up to £127,000 – an astonishing and (for many, if not most) unimaginable sum – it also emerged that Oxbridge alumni and privately educated candidates hold an overwhelming majority of Britain’s top jobs.

These headlines confirm a long held suspicion that, despite efforts to enforce equality and promote opportunity in all areas of society, social mobility and equality of opportunity are a real, remaining problem in the UK.

Unfortunately, the legal profession is one of the worst culprits for prioritising privilege and indulging in a cycle that inherently stagnates social growth and mobility.

The statistics speak for themselves, as – although Oxbridge educates less than 1% of the population – 74% of the top judiciary went to Oxford or Cambridge. This is particularly true of Magic Circle firms, as an astounding 55% of band 1 Magic Circle partners are Oxbridge educated. What’s more, 74% of top judges working in the high or appeals court were privately educated at school(this has decreased by only 2% since the 1980s) and according to a report by the Department for Education, pupils from private schools are five times more likely to get places at Oxbridge – with one in every 20 attending, compared to one in 100 from state schools.

And so the system rolls on.

Given that most senior judges initially work as barristers, anything that deters people from economically disadvantaged (or, more accurately, less than considerably advantaged) backgrounds from qualifying (such as the astronomical cost) can only serve to have a significant impact on the future of the legal system, crippling the already fragile social mobility that’s been witnessed in the last few years.

Addressing this tangible imbalance in access to opportunity is key to establishing equality in education, and, consequently, the future workforce.

Some steps are being taken, with a number of law firms adapting social-mobility programmes, such as the Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law, that focus on diversity and professional access. At Capital Law, too, we focus on our status as an equal opportunity employer, and actively aim to recruit diversely at all levels. The Solicitors Regulation Authority also now collects data on solicitors’ educational backgrounds.

However, for real change to be made, the process needs to start with education.

Scholarships, grants and funding programmes all aim to increase access and decrease the socio-economic divide found in top level education (and, therefore, top jobs), but there is a need for these processes to be more than simply filling quotas or ticking boxes.

Instead, education institutions and professional organisations – such as law firms – alike must work together to develop measurable social mobility strategies and commit to a collaborative effort, if we are to witness this much-needed, important change.

Iestyn Morris, Partner