Ian Jones, of ‘The Independent’, recently wrote about the composition of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet, observing that the majority had attended fee-paying private schools. Of the remainder, 13% attended selective state grammar schools, while only 23% came from state comprehensive schools.

61% of Sunak’s Conservative Cabinet attended a private school: Amongst them are Rishi Sunak (Winchester College); Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse School); Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (Colfe’s School); and Home Secretary Suella Braverman (Heathfield School).

This is less than the 64% of the Conservative Cabinet led by Boris Johnson (Eton College); and the 68% of the short-lived Conservative Cabinet led by Liz Truss.

Other recent Cabinets had a privately educated membership of:

  • 30% - the 2016 Conservative Cabinet of Theresa May.
  • 50% - the 2015 Conservative Cabinet of David Cameron (Eton College)
  • 62% - the 2010 Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition Cabinet of David Cameron (Eton College) and Nick Clegg (Westminster School).
  • 32% - the Labour Cabinets of Tony Blair (Fettes College) and Gordon Brown.

So, do private schools provide opportunities above and beyond their state counterparts? Well, they certainly offer a compelling package of great education, extra-curricular activities, teamwork, leadership, and create a sense of public duty. Students are also empowered to have the confidence and ambition to apply to aspirational universities or careers and are stretched to achieve of their best. 

And is the power of ‘old school tie’ networking overrated and outdated? Well, critics point out the power of the establishment, and that since the office of Prime Minister was created (circa 1721), 20 of the 61 incumbents have been ‘Old Etonians’. Or is it just that the competitive and aspirational nature of private schools better equips their students for high office and leadership roles, in all walks of life?

Ian Jones based his Guardian article on data from The Sutton Trust (a social mobility educational charity), which identified that only Penny Mordaunt (Leader of the Commons), Mark Harper (Transport Secretary) and Gillian Keegan (Education Secretary), had attended non-selective state schools – just 23% of the current Cabinet. And Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, reflected that this 61% figure was nine times the national average for private school attendance, he also highlighted that 45% went to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge - double the average for all MPs.

And Rishi Sunak continues the phenomenon, that every post-World War Prime Minister has attended The University of Oxford, with one exception – Gordon Brown (University of Edinburgh).

And the elite status of Oxford is highlighted by the fact that many of our top UK politicians have studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. Indeed, a 2017 ‘Guardian’ article by Andy Beckett, suggested that the Oxford PPE has had a greater impact on British political life than any other subject. Be they left or right wing, politician or lobbyist, capitalist or environmentalist, the PPE network has permeated every top level of British leadership. But Beckett also questioned whether it has it produced an ‘out-of-touch ruling class’.

But despite its current ‘elite establishment’ status, the Oxford PPE was once a radical educational initiative, created in the aftermath of The Great War and The Russian Revolution. Its remit was to create a degree which moved away from the traditional subjects and engaged with the issues of the contemporary world, providing leaders for Britain and its Empire. And it even dropped the traditional requirements for Ancient Greek, to allow state school students to access the course. As a result, many Oxford Dons initially viewed the course with considerable suspicion.


Yet, from its earliest days, future top politicians such as Edward Heath and Harold Wilson (both future Prime ministers), Michael Foot (Leighton Park School), and Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester College), all studied PPE. And whilst it is traditionally associated with Labour – including Tony Benn (Westminster School), Tony Crosland (Highgate School), and Peter Mandelson; Conservatives have also been shaped by it too – including David Cameron (Eton College), Michael Heseltine (Bromsgrove School & Shrewsbury School), Nigel Lawson (Westminster School), David Willetts (King Edward School, Birmingham), Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse School), William Hague, Philip Hammond, and Liz Truss.

But the Oxford PPE also produces global leaders and influencers with a shared outlook. These highly educated, confident, and internationalist figures include names such as Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malcolm Fraser, and Bob Hawke. For them, an Oxford PPE degree was a globally recognised status symbol, indicating exceptional academic achievement, and future potential. And inevitably, the tutors who have trained many of our current non-PPE political elite, are of course PPE graduates themselves, thus perpetuating PPE’s philosophical influence.

And the demand for Oxford PPE is still growing. Between 2007-15 applications rose by 28%. A recent PPE student said “… when you go to the lectures… they’re absolutely packed out… (but) you realise that only a few of them will go into frontline politics.” So, the influence of PPE has diffused, with many politically inclined graduates now working for charities, aid agencies, activist groups, the World Bank, the United Nations, and other global organisations – is this a recognition that the days of Oxford PPE students producing a Westminster elite are over? Indeed, another recent PPE student reported that “At my college, the investment banks were just hoovering them (PPE graduates) up” – but some critics warn that this creates a new hidden elite, pulling the strings from behind the scenes.  But the academic influence of the PPE concept is undeniable and continues to grow, with 20+ other UK universities setting up their own PPE courses, and so have providers in other countries.

However, in this new age of populism and the rejection of traditional elites, critics now question the value of PPE, blaming our political leaders for a seemingly constant timeline of issues, crises, and upheaval. Indeed, some pessimists have suggested that our PPE educated leaders are not the solution to the UK’s problems, they are the cause of them.

But optimists believe that the Oxford PPE will survive the current populist challenge – after all, it was born out of the ashes of the Great War, and survived the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the Second World War, the collapse of the post-war centrist consensus, the end of the British empire, the Cold War, the fall of Communism, and recent post-industrial internet based social disruption.

And Beckett’s Guardian article concludes with a phoenix like suggestion, that should the Oxford PPE wither away, it will be superseded by the new Oxford University based Blavatnik School of Government (funded by £75M donation from philanthropic US / Ukrainian businessman, Leonard Blavatnik), which already offers postgraduate courses in Public Policy, but has a broader mission to educate future leaders. So should the attraction of the Oxford PPE ever decline, Becket observes that historically in the UK, ‘one elite tends to replace another’.


So, whether you aspire to study PPE at Oxford, or any other subject at a university, Education Advisers can assist with your pathway. We have a multitude of resources on our University Advice website, including  "The Journey to Oxbridge" webinar.

Steven, our university consultant with 35+ years of senior leadership and educational experience, leads our University Advice Service and can provide comprehensive bespoke advice, or one-off university services as required.

As always, please feel free to email steven@educationadvisers.co.uk  or call +44(0)1622 813870. We'd be delighted to hear from you and see how we can help.