Research: Over 70% of top judges and barristers are privately educated or Oxbridge

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Little progress on social mobility at Bar for quarter of a century


The privately educated Oxbridge elite continues to dominate the top ranks of the judiciary and Bar, according to research released today.

The educational charity the Sutton Trust has published data on the background of over 1,200 people across nine top professions.

According to the stats, close to three-quarters (74%) of the 147 top judges were educated privately. The same proportion — 74% — attended either Cambridge or Oxford University.

It was a similar position at the Bar. Of 100 QCs polled, more than seven out of 10 (71%) had been privately educated and an overwhelming 78% had attended Oxbridge.


This privately schooled Oxbridge elite dominance of the law persists despite only 7% of the population attending private schools and less that 1% attending either Oxford or Cambridge.

The solicitors’ profession was more consistent with other industry sectors.

Of the solicitors questioned, just over half (51%) were privately educated, while almost six out of 10 (55%) had attended Oxbridge.

Back in 1989 more than three quarters of High and Appeal Court judges (76%) were educated privately. This figure dropped only slightly to 75% in 2004, and again in 2015, to 74%.

Historically, it’s been a similar situation at the Bar.

Previous Sutton Trust data showed that in 1989, almost nine out of 10 (89%) of top barristers were Oxbridge educated, whilst almost three quarters (73%) attended a private school. Fast-forward to 2004 and the picture was much the same, with 68% of the sample having attended a private school, and 82% attending either Oxford or Cambridge.



High rates of Oxbridge attendance and private school attendance should not be conflated. One is positive whereas the other is negative. One is indicative of a lack of social mobility whereas the other demonstrates no such thing.



No such thing? Really?



I broadly agree with this comment. Oxbridge is a badge of merit and attainment, whereas private schooling is a badge of privilege.

However, whilst the figure of 74% vis-à-vis 7% is undoubtedly too high, one ought always to expect a higher percentage of privately educated people in the higher echelons of the professions – even in a wholly meritocratic society.

For one, a very large number of private schools (the majority, even?) have entrance exams. This means that right from the off, regardless of wealth and privilege, their intake can be expected to be of a much higher calibre than that of (non-grammar) state schools.

Secondly, sending one’s children to private school says much about the aspiration and ethos of the parents. If one set of parents forks out a significant portion of their income on their child’s education, it is reasonable to infer that their household puts a greater emphasis on education and educational attainment than others. In turn, one would expect the same aspiration and work ethic to rub off on the children.

There will of course always be a few households for which school fees are insignificant, and equally there will always be a very large number of households for which private school fees are (literally) unaffordable. However, there is a significant grey band amongst the lower-middle classes for which school fees are (virtually) unaffordable, and yet the parents choose to send their children to private school anyway.

Thirdly, to be able to afford to send one’s children to private school says something about the educational attainment of the parents. Generally, it is perfectly reasonable to expect the sons and daughters of barristers, doctors and business leaders to be blessed with greater innate intelligence than the sons and daughters of gardeners, nurses and security guards.

Relatedly, when the son or daughter of a blue collar worker does find their way into a private school, it will often be the result of generous merit-based scholarships, skewing the ability of privately educated pupils versus state school pupils even further.

Finally, the teaching and opportunities in private schools tend to be better than in state schools. Behaviour management especially, for a whole host of reasons, is far better in private schools than in state schools, and this significantly impacts the educational opportunities available to students. If Pupil A spends 13 years receiving a first class education, and Pupil B spends 13 years receiving a passable education in a mediocre state school, this will have a plastic effect on their development; even if Pupil B had greater natural born ability, by the time they reach 18 it is perfectly possible that Pupil A will by that stage have an irreversible advantage in terms of his skills, learning and cognitive abilities.

I’m not suggesting that these things alone can account for a discrepancy of 67% in the figures; as I wrote at the beginning, this difference is clearly too high. However, I am challenging the implicit presumption that the demographic makeup of the judiciary ought to reflect the demographic makeup of society at large.


Weary of Social Justice Warriors

Bumblebee, most of your post does a good job of rebutting your opening claim that “private schooling is a badge of privilege” – as you point out, there’s more to it than that, there is the very significant factor that the best private schools will not take a pupil who is academically weak. You will find that the QCs who went to private schools did not go to St Custard’s academy for the rich and thick, they will have gone to Westminster, Winchester etc.



None of what I wrote rebuts the claim that “private schooling is a badge of privilege”. Rather, it rebuts the presumption that privilege and aptitude are independent.



What rot from beginning to end.

And why shouldn’t the judiciary reflect the society they are trying and are funded by?

Too many absurd decisions reflect the weakness of the harrow and oxbridge treadmill.


John Cooper QC

Unfortunately I was not polled, but as a comprehensive school non Oxbridge person attaining Silk I would still be in the minority.
It was difficult in the early 80’s when I experienced bullying at the hands of the profession because of my background and accent. That came from privately educated, mostly Oxbridge colleagues. Things have changed and they changed because more talented people from diverse backgrounds were given a chance to make their way at the Bar. This is now beginning to filter through to senior ranks but clearly not fast enough. Maybe the 30% not polled would make a difference to this result, maybe not… would be interesting to learn how the polled barristers were selected, nevertheless, the improvements with diversity attained through local authority grants, the lack of student debt and a properly supported legal aid system, particularly for juniors holds little optimism that the basis for future diversity is in place as now as all three building blocks are gone or compromised and I fear the return to a Bar of privately educated Oxbridge entrants . I hope that that does not bring with it the bullying.



I reckon John Cooper QC sounds like a yam yam.


Just Anonymous

Please forgive me if I repeat an argument I’ve previously made on Legal Cheek. (After all, Legal Cheek continually repeats itself with this endless Oxbridge hysteria.)

Chambers are looking for the most academic candidates.
Oxbridge are looking for the most academic students.
The Bar attracts the most academic people.

Thus, a strong correlation between Oxbridge and the Bar should come as no surprise to anyone.

And I speak as a non-Oxbridge graduate.



Chambers, Oxbridge, the Bar and private schools all claim to look for the most gifted, the most academic and intelligent people.

If this was true then the only conclusion to be drawn from the statistics would be that proportionately rich people are more likely to be gifted, academic and intelligent.

This is obviously not the case.

The only other conclusion is that whilst private schools, Oxbridge and the Bar claim to look for the best talent, what they are actually looking for is people like them.



Why is that obviously not the case?! If you’re rich, it is most likely because you are bright. If you’re bridge, you substantially more likely to have bright children. Therefore “rich people” ARE proportionally more likely to be gifted, academic and intelligent.


Not Amused

You get in to Oxbridge by being clever.

You get in to private school by paying.

It is entirely wrong for anyone to conflate the two.



Now come in NA. That is silly even by your standards. You are far more likely to get to Oxbridge if you went to public school. You are far more likely to have gone to public school if you’re parents could afford to send you there.

You can agree that much I’m sure.


(Poor-born) Public school, non-oxbridge Baby Bazzah

I would go to the doctor and have him look at that chip on your shoulder…


Jezza Corbo

Class traitor



Oxbridge make a big deal about taking into account the standard of prior education, if public school kids are really more likely to get in, it’s probably because they’ve been told for 18 years that it’s going to happen.



You can be dumb and get into a private school but that doesn’t mean that you will:
a) succeed in life
b) earn much

You actually have to be privileged AND smart.

Well, at most places anyway..



You stay at private schools by paying – you get into them by passing the entrance exam. Selection is on merit albeit from among the offspring of ambitious parents or from very able scholarship candidates. It would be truly remarkable if privately educated people weren’t very heavily represented in a profession that places so much emphasis on academic achievement in recruitment. The democratic solution? Ditch the pupillage interview and replace with a pickled egg eating competition.



I don’t think it is a problem that most are from Oxbridge – it is an excellent education they receive and can be achieved on merit. They do more work in shorter periods of time, and sit harder exams.

The schooling issue however is dire.



This may be anecdotal , but I had heard that although a relatively small number of state school students get into Oxford, of those who do get into Oxford a disproportionately high number get first class degrees. Someone back me up on this.



Completely correct. As someone who has tangentially been involved in the oxford admissions process (on the admin/interviews end), I would say that it varies wildly depending on the college. You do get some colleges where all of the Westminster/Harrow lot seem to have AAA whereas anyone from a state school will normally have 3,4,5 A* grades. Funny that.



Again I think we need to look at the state schools, not just Oxbridge itself. People get in based on their performances at interview. At my school students had no real help preparing applications for uni or for interview so had no idea what to expect, whereas it seems public schools tutor students for this. Naturally the tutored students will do better at interview. Two of my schoolfriends applied and were taken utterly by surprise by the type of interview questions. Neither got in and both went on to top their years at red bricks. I was too afflicted by imposter syndrome to apply in the first instance but got in at postgrad. Again, state school students are more likely to be intimidated by Oxbridge than are public school students.



I hate to politely disagree with the comment as to “looking at state schools”. It was beyond me why we were turning down a state school student with 5 A*s in favor of someone with AAA from a private school on the basis that they were a bit nervous at the interview. Oxbridge’s obsession with the interview system is unhealthy. It is not an effective means of selecting the best students, and is instead used as an institutional “filter” on “the sorts of people we do and do not want”. Having been involved in interviewing, can I say that I could point to a specific example of outright discrimination? No I couldn’t give you any concrete examples. But I can tell you that part of it comes down to simple things such as the general atmosphere in the room when the student is greeted, and how comfortable they were made to feel. I do think that the private school students were, sometimes, put at ease a lot more that their state school counter parts. One method I identified, is the use of the personal statements. A state school student comes in, and is hit straight away with complicated and thought provoking question about the legal problem/hypothetical scenario. *Some* private school applicants come in, and are allowed 5/6 minutes exposition about their form and being lacrosse captain. There is no consistency between the interviews, no standard formatting between colleges and no checks and balances in place as regards the format of the interview. Does allowing Student A from Harrow 5 minutes to talk about lacrosse give them an advantage? Of course it does- It is impossible, however, to make any sort of link to discriminatory behavior because the practices are all so nuanced and subtle, and ultimately take place in someones head- you will never prove what a tutor was “thinking about” during an interview. That is the problem. It could be more easily remedied by Faculties taking interviews instead of colleges and consistent questioning.


“Does allowing Student A from Harrow 5 minutes to talk about lacrosse give them an advantage?”
If Student A is from Harrow and talking about lacrosse, this either demonstrates healthy diversity-awareness (Harrow School being all male and lacrosse, in this country, being almost exclusively a female sport) or that Student A was from Harrow and not from Harrow School. Or, possibly, that you are not quite as you would seem.


Chancery Pupil, having read your spiel, I would have to say I also politely disagree. In stark contract to your “3A vs 3, 4, 5A*s” comparison scenario, is common knowledge everywhere else, that Oxbridge discriminates against public schools in terms of grade classifications at GCSEs (I don’t see how a-level grades have any relevance, since you’re not given a conditional offer on your A-level grades?!). When I applied barely 5 years ago, the informal guidelines drawn from averages were 7*As if you were applying from a public school, or 2-3A*s if you were from the state comprehensive sector. Your claim that Oxbridge allows those from public schools in on lower grades is just simply not true.


Scouser of Counsel

I was neither and I’m still in the top 11,000 counsel!




I am only in the top 15,000 of counsel.

*sad face*



No sh*t da sheriff!



Wow Legal Cheek, this is getting seriously boring. As you don’t seem to have processed these arguments on any of the thousands of occasions you have peddled this story:

1. Oxbridge is a sign of excellence, not privilege.
2. QCs and the judiciary all came to the Bar c 20 years ago so their make-up is not representative of the junior Bar.
3. Private schools generally provide a better education, as well as many being selective. People who are better-educated are more likely to be at the top of the list for recruitment in any field. The problem is not with the Bar, it is with the quality of state schools (who also rarely promote the Bar – or Oxbridge – as an option).



How can Oxbridge be a sign of excellence and not privilege when the privileged are vastly over-represented at Oxbridge? Do you think the privileged are naturally more gifted and that’s why they are over-represented or do you think there are other factors at all?

It hurts for many to hear, but MOST people at the Bar would not be there if we had meritocracy.



Ouch. Had your pupillage application rejected lately by any chance?



If having been to Oxbridge is a sign of privilege, that’s an indictment of state schools, not the bar.



Bit of a shame though that one’s career and prospects are so predictable by the age of 18 (the age most are when the Oxbridge owl delivers their acceptance letters) that it’s almost impossible for the lawyers who didn’t go to overtake their Oxbridge peers.





Not Amused (after dark)




Why not cap oxbridge etc at no more than the average ratio for judges.

And not every oxbridger is a genius rather its often the old boy network



I know about a High Court Judge + Top QC who did not attend Oxbridge. One attended Bristol University (his kids went to Oxbridge tho), the other attended a secondary modern school followed by a law degree from the University of Hull (University of ‘ull).



Ah, one of the great universities then: Oxford. Cambridge. Hull.


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