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Defending Independent Schooling!

07/06/2016 11:21 | Updated 07 June 2016

I want to muscle in on the latest playground scrap. After MP Matt Hancock suggested employers weed out privileged job applicants by asking them if they were privately educated, headteachers of some of Britain's top independent schools, including Eton and Westminster, have accused politicians - and the media that reported his thoughts so widely - of being "rude" about them.

Rude? I'm not sure, but ridiculous it certainly is. Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, hits the nail on the head when he says asking people where they were schooled is the "last workplace taboo". Asking questions about a candidate's background should be as taboo as querying their sexuality, religion or political leanings. Whether they went private or not, it should be kept private. After all, the decision was completely out of their hands.

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Surely holding someone responsible for a choice made by their parent or guardian, years or decades before, is the antithesis of social mobility and free movement. Keeping a person out of a job because of their background is just as narrow-minded as gifting someone the chairmanship of a company because their father held it before them.

As a recruiter, I want the best candidate for the role, irrespective of whether or not they wore boaters to school. Will I be forced to reject the most able applicant for a less remarkable person because their parents paid for their education instead of relying on the state? Isn't this the same as overlooking an excellent female because I worry she may take time off to have babies and settling for a second-rate male instead. It's dangerous ground.

Am I then meant to check up if an applicant with a hint of a plum in their voice swears blind they were educated at the local comprehensive? As Jeffrey Archer - who claimed wrongly to have a degree from Oxford University - and Iain Duncan Smith, who pretended to have studied at the University of Perugia, can testify, CVs are not always documents of truth.

I agree that there is an imbalance in the world of employment. Only seven per cent of the population is privately educated, which means the vast majority is not. And yet this tiny percentage continues to dominate high-earning, well-respected professions. In February, the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust released a report called Leading People 2016, which revealed that industries such as law, medicine and journalism were full of people who went to fee-paying schools. Half of our best-loved actors are privately educated and it's a fact that most trophy cabinets full of Oscars and Baftas can be found in mansions, not council houses.

But with the finger of blame pointed at independent schools, its leaders have come out fighting. In a letter to yesterday's Sunday Times, 12 headteachers of leading schools joined forces to claim that their seats of learning - arguably the most exclusive in the country - were "deeply committed to accessibility" and boasted "plenty of pupils from ordinary backgrounds." Although they didn't name names (no snitches here), it was a clear swipe at Hancock's idea that if employers checked the "socio-economic background" of interviewees, it would no longer discriminate against those from poorer families.

"Independent schools cannot solve all educational and social problems," wrote the headteachers before pointing out that "a quarter of pupils are on assisted places" and almost all independent schools "work in their communities...sharing teachers and facilities...and running programmes...that enrich lives and raise aspirations." So, by taking the money from the 'haves', they are able to give something back to the 'have nots'. Robin Hood would be proud. Isn't it better to give some poor children access to the very best that money can buy rather than not allowing anyone to have it?

Before I sign off, it's worth pointing out that, according to the Sutton Trust, another profession dominated by graduates of independent schools is politics. Half of David Cameron's cabinet was privately educated - including Hancock who is an alumnus of The King's School, Chester. I can't imagine his first employer bothered asking him about his education. They didn't need to - it was his family's computer software business.

To read more news and opinion on key educational issues - go to William Clarence Education

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