Etons provost: Social mobility is improving, but real change is slow

Jobs from Indeed

Lord Waldegrave threatened to resign from the Conservative party over a plan intended to boost the chances of state school pupils. He explains his point of view

William Waldegrave, provost of Eton college, is probably the poshest person I have met. That is not because he is Lord Waldegrave, which is just a common-or-garden life peerage awarded after he served 16 years as a Tory minister, but because his father was the 12th Earl Waldegrave and his elder brother is the 13th Earl. His sister Susan is lady-in-waiting to the Queen and godmother to Prince William; his brother was a page at the coronation. The earldom goes back to the early 18th century but the Waldegraves were big cheeses long before that: one was Speaker of the House of Commons during Richard IIs reign and another got a knighthood from Mary I plus the Chewton estate in Somerset, where William was brought up and still farms. When he went to boarding school, the train was pulled by a steam locomotive named Earl Waldegrave.

Waldegraves relationship with Eton has deep roots. He went there, as did his father, brother and son. His maternal grandfather played cricket for the Eton XI against Harrow at Lords in 1892 and another ancestor drowned in the college grounds.

It may seem unsurprising, then, that Waldegrave landed himself in controversy this summer over government attempts to increase social mobility. Matt Hancock, the then Cabinet Office minister, said he would order the civil service to ask applicants about their home backgrounds and schooling, and encourage other big employers to do the same. Children, Waldegrave protested, should not be punished for their parents decisions nor jobs filled by social engineering rather than merit. If there was more of this nonsense, he would resign from the Conservative party.

To anyone who knows Waldegrave, the threat came as a shock. He is not, for one thing, a very passionate person, admitting in his memoirs, published last year, that he didnt go into politics to advance some great cause but to deal with the problems one found through the application of as much intelligence as one could muster. When Kenneth Clarke upset doctors and nurses with changes to the NHS, Margaret Thatcher replaced him with Waldegrave because Kenneth has stirred them all up and I want you to calm them all down. And though he faithfully served Thatcher, he was always regarded as a wet, firmly on the partys left.

Eton
Eton college. Oxford says 25% of its entrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds come from independent schools on bursaries, says Waldegrave. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian

His first allegiance was to Edward Heath, for whom he worked as private secretary. He was against immigration controls, hanging and laws restricting homosexuality. He was never comfortable with the modern Tories dedication to free enterprise and hostility to state institutions private good, public bad just is not true, he wrote in 2012 and laments that in the society we have created no slogan exists to shame the rich into any semblance of solidarity with the poor.

So why did he criticise Hancock so vehemently? Because what he plans would lead to new kinds of unfairness. At Eton, I raise money for bursaries for children whose families cant afford the fees. If these children are going to be discriminated against by my own partys government, I raise the alarm. Oxford says 25% of its entrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds come from independent schools on bursaries. We had a boy from a very impoverished London East End background and hes now at the grandest of Oxford colleges. His CV would look awful to Hancock because it says Eton and Christ Church and everyone would say he must be in the Bullingdon Club. Well, I can tell you he jolly well isnt.

I point out that Hancock later explained that any information on home and school background would be collected anonymously and not form the basis of any individual recruitment decision. Hancock wanted top employers to reform their selection procedures, eliminating unconscious biases so that their workforces are drawn from more diverse backgrounds. They cannot do that successfully without measuring the effects.

That puts him in a much better place, Waldegrave says. However, with the best intentions in the world, if you collect this kind of information, you are on a continuum towards targets and then quotas. Theres a gap between intention and outcome in these things. He quotes Goodharts Law, formulated by another Old Etonian, an economist called Charles Goodhart: When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.

But progress towards equality of opportunity is painfully slow. Most top positions in Britain are still held by people from fee-charging schools. Hancock says the civil service fast stream is less socially diverse than Oxbridge. Arent targets, even quotas, needed to achieve real change?

Waldegrave
William Waldegrave who still farms the Chewton estate in Somerset, where he was brought up milking a goat in 1985, when he was a Tory minister. Photograph: John Walters/Associated Newspapers/Rex

Real change is slow. Short cuts end up in worse things. Look at gender: slowly, slowly, were getting there. If it had been done by quotas, the change might not have been so profound. You dont change whats on the inside. People just tick boxes. We have to be patient.

The civil service should be going out to schools and saying we want you to join us, not because we have quotas to fill but because we want to make the civil service better. Universities should be doing the same. At Eton, we have appointed a full-time director of outreach to find not just gifted and talented children we dont want to be creaming off as the grammar schools did but also those in boarding need.

We are talking at the London headquarters of Coutts, Britains third oldest bank (founded 1692), where Waldegrave is non-executive chairman. This occupies two days a week while Eton, for which he gets nearly 100,000 a year plus an on-site apartment next door to the head, occupies five, he tells me. So he works seven days a week? I do actually. The provost doesnt just chair governors meetings. Theres fundraising, a museum, endowments, relations with local schools. Im always there at weekends during term.

He says he always wanted a sinecure but hasnt found one yet. Thats a joke. From his schooldays, he wanted to reach the very top and had a detailed plan for getting there. He became president of the Oxford Union, got a first, did a spell at Harvard, became a fellow of All Souls and worked for GEC, then Britains largest company. He was elected to parliament in 1979, aged 32, and got on the ministerial ladder within two years, responsible for higher education. He imposed university cuts but temporarily stopped polytechnics (as they then were) being removed from local authority control. In the same spirit, he is suspicious of academies and thinks that, in about 10 years, people will say they should be accountable to elected people and local education authorities will be reinvented.

He is also suspicious of the national curriculum. Basic tests of literacy and numeracy, maybe. But the danger is you diminish pluralism. If a good head has a couple of teachers who can really run with drama, why shouldnt he let them?

He stayed at the education department until 1983 and, by then, was already doubting he could reach No 10. Having seen Thatcher in action over the Falklands, he didnt think he could match her single-minded determination. He held junior ministerial positions at the environment department before moving to the Foreign Office and reaching the cabinet as health secretary just before Thatchers fall in 1990. He thought he could make it to foreign secretary.

Alas, during his FCO spell, he was involved in a row over government guidelines on arms sales to Iraq, then officially subject to a boycott, which Matrix Churchill, a Coventry company, allegedly breached, leading to its directors facing jail. An inquiry later found that Waldegrave wrote designedly misleading letters about the guidelines but with no intent to deceive. This was supposed to mean he hadnt lied, but the damage was done and his career, and to some extent his self-esteem, was ruined.

Waldegrave tells this story with wry self-deprecation in his memoir, A Different Kind of Weather (2015), not being fool enough to think anybody will or should shed tears. He has worked in financial services since he lost his Bristol West seat in 1997, so he is probably better off financially as a result. And since his biggest ministerial achievement was the poll tax which he designed while an environment minister some may say his disgrace was deserved even if it came about for the wrong reasons.

One should keep a soft spot for Waldegraves almost extinct form of Toryism: gentler, more inclusive and more respectful of established institutions than its post-1970s successor. But I come away thinking that he tries too much to have his cake and eat it. His father, a Tory minister from 1958 to 1962, believed, Waldegrave says, in a sort of hierarchical Christian socialism (surely an oxymoron) and says there is something of that in him.

Even more surprisingly, he suddenly refers to your famous idea my suggestion in Education Guardian in 2012 that elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge should take the two best students from every school in the country, whether it is Eton or a sink comprehensive and describes it as not a bad idea.

I am, of course, flattered. But this must be aristocratic charm and courtesy at work. Eton would be happy with sending just two pupils a year to Oxbridge? I dont think so.

  • This article was corrected on 26 July 2016. Matrix Churchill was based in Coventry, not Birmingham as stated in an earlier version.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jul/26/eton-provost-social-mobility-lord-waldegrave