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Half the Bishops in the C of E were educated privately

05 September 2014


Privilege: pupils at Harrow School in 2009. Two serving suffragan bishops attended the school

Privilege: pupils at Harrow School in 2009. Two serving suffragan bishops attended the school

WHEN the present Archbishop of Canterbury's appointment was announced, commentators noted that he, the Prime Minister, and the Mayor of London made a trinity of Etonians at the top of the Establishment.

His response was that he was defined not by his education but "because I love and follow Jesus Christ" (News, 16 November, 2012).

Data collected by the Church Times shows that he is not alone in being educated privately. While he is the only Etonian, 48 (exactly 50 per cent) of the 96 serving bishops whose schooling could be determined were educated in the independent sector. Thirty-five (36 per cent) attended a grammar school; just 13 per cent attended a comprehensive school.

Analysis of the bishops' undergraduate education shows that 43 (42 per cent) took a first degree at Oxford or Cambridge. The University of Durham was, by a large margin, the third-commonest Alma Mater: 17 per cent of bishops received their first degree from the institution.

The figures were collected after the publication last week of a new report, Elitist Britain? by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. This found that 71 per cent of senior judges, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 36 per cent of the Cabinet, and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists attended independent schools, compared with seven per cent of the population as a whole.

In addition, 75 per cent of senior judges, 38 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 59 per cent of the cabinet, and 47 per cent of newspaper columnists studied at Oxford or Cambridge, compared with less than one per cent of the population as a whole.

Alan Milburn, who chaired the commission, called for "a rethink in the institutions that have such a critical role to play in making Britain a country where success relies on aptitude and ability more than background or birth".

He warned: "A closed shop at the top can all too easily give rise to a 'not for the likes of me' syndrome in the rest of society."

The Church Times adopted the methodology of the Milburn commission for comparison purposes. Our research, however, exposed Britain's changing educational landscape. Many of the bishops reached the age of 11 before the introduction of non-selective comprehensive schools, and attended grammar schools. Others, such as the Bishops of Whitby and Ramsbury, attended independent schools under the Direct Grant scheme, under which the Government paid their fees.

One of the arguments put forward by the Milburn Commission is that social mobility has slowed in the decades since the 1950s. Among the past 20 episcopal appointments, eight were privately educated, and six were Oxbridge. The numbers are too small to be reliable, but they suggest as slightly greater social mix.

On Tuesday, Dr Lee Elliot Major, policy director of the Sutton Trust, said that the figures "suggest that the privately educated elite is vastly over-represented among church leaders" who were "on a par, at least educationally speaking, with top journalists and senior medics.

"Our concern, as for other areas of public life, is that bishops are not representative of the people they are intended to serve.

"The danger of our elites coming from such a thin slice of society is that they may miss out on the different perspectives reflected in the wider population."

We heard from a number of bishops during our research. Several were concerned at what conclusions might be drawn from their education. Our concern was more to do with experience than payment. For university, we noted only first degrees, not where the bishops had done their training.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that, if anything, he was surprised that the number of bishops who had gone to independent school or Oxbridge was so low. He said, however, that he did not believe the Church unfairly favoured those who were privileged.

"I just appointed two new bishops - where they went to school or university is irrelevant to me," he said on Tuesday. "The foundational question is which of these candidates can deliver what we need?

"I think the focus is on experience and competence as well as potential, and that is not decided by educational origins."

Bishop Baines, who attended a comprehensive school and the University of Bradford, said that, while private schools did breed a confidence that state schools did not, that confidence could also be developed later in life. But the question of elitism was definitely a significant issue.

"The Church is interested in people; so social mobility matters. If it's about enabling people to realise their potential, then it is important."

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, said that the C of E's elite leadership merely reflected what was happening in wider society.

"Everywhere we have a preponderance of people who are privately educated and Oxbridge. That's inevitable, given the kind of demographic that the Church includes. We can't fight that social trend - well, we can fight it, but it's quite difficult," he said on Monday.

Ever since the report Faith in the City in the 1980s, the Church had been working on trying to reflect more accurately the people it was trying to serve, Bishop Broadbent argued. But he admitted it had not always been that way.

"The way we have seen leadership in Church has sometimes made it easier for those who are public-school and Oxbridge to sail through the system," he said. Bishop Broadbent attended the Merchant Taylors', a public school, during the 1960s, but had his fees paid by his local council. "My selection [for the priesthood] was pretty undemanding because there was an assumption that I was the right type of person. I think that has changed.

"It's a theology - if we believe in equality of all people being made in the image of God, we should reflect that. Unless we get this right we will be in a mess. It needs to be deliberate - if we don't do that it will just default to the normal."

Question of the week: Are there too many privately edu­cated bishops in the C of E? 


The data is accurate to the best of our knowledge and gathered from sources including Who's Who, The Church of England Year Book, Diocesan websites, and contact with bishops. Some of those who attended private schools will have done so under the Direct Grant scheme. We have shown this as "DG" when known. We will update the spreadsheet below as we receive data. 


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