'Donald Trump's victory is down to education, not politics'

Over two-thirds of white people without a college degree voted for Donald Trump, proving that education has not been the great leveller of social mobility that the US hoped for

Lee Elliot Major

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“I love the poorly educated”, Donald Trump said during one jubilant speech on his path to becoming President-elect of the United States. He called his campaign “Brexit plus”, drawing similarities with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. This was a protest vote against the out-of touch, self-interested educated elites of Westminster and Washington; it was telling that even the clever pollsters and psephology professors failed to see the political bombshells that were coming our way.

The backgrounds of voters on either side of the Pond who defied the political establishment are different in many ways, reflecting the countries’ distinctive populations. But one common demographic group of Americans and Brits clearly stood out: the white working class. Poorly educated, often living outside major cities, witnessing little wage growth in recent years (if working at all), worried about immigration, these disenfranchised and seemingly forgotten people have made their voices heard on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the striking statistics in the presidential election was that over two-thirds of white people without a college degree voted for Donald Trump. Just under two-thirds of Americans who believed life would get worse for future generations also backed Trump. Many live in the Rust Belt states that have witnessed deep economic decline in recent decades.

In the Brexit vote, meanwhile, education was perhaps the most powerful predictor of people’s position: over 70 per cent of people with no school qualification voted to leave the EU, while 70 per cent of those with a postgraduate degree voted to remain. As I explained in a recent lecture on Britain’s social mobility problem at Durham University, this was only part of the story: the least socially mobile areas of the country, inhabited by white working class communities, were also those areas most likely to vote overwhelmingly to leave.

Why Donald Trump is different

This was certainly a two fingers up to the distant political elites in London. For many, former prime minister David Cameron’s claim that “it’s not where you come from but where you’re going to that matters” felt increasingly like empty rhetoric as he surrounded himself with Etonian chums in Whitehall. His successor Theresa May, however, continues a long academic tradition. Every English PM elected since the Second World War has attended just one university: Oxford.

But Donald Trump, who attended a private prep school, bucks a recent trend that saw presidents with degrees from either Yale or Harvard. The president-elect graduated with an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania. For Brits, it’s always an irony to observe America’s obsession with political dynasties – from the Kennedys to the Bushes to the Clintons. Perhaps we can now look forward to the Obamas – or even the Trumps.

The profound problem facing the leaders of Britain and the US is that their countries suffer from low social mobility: the chances of climbing the social (or income) ladder are lower than in other developed nations. The education system has failed to be the great social leveller we all hope for. And the white working classes are those who have lost out the most.

Can new leaders transform education?

The Sutton Trust report published this week outlines once more the depressing statistics. White British boys on free school meals achieve the lowest grades at age 16 of any main ethnic group: just 24 per cent achieve the expected national benchmark of 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. They have now been either the lowest or second lowest performing ethnic group every year for a decade.

The question is whether either Theresa May or Donald Trump can deliver the education policies to transform the life prospects of these communities that pinned their hopes on change. May’s main idea for improving social mobility through education has been highly controversial: proposing the expansion of selective grammar schools. Expect Trump to be even more radical, scaling back the federal US  Department of Education and encouraging more school choice. As I recently argued on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, what we need is a new model of social mobility – one that not only catapults talents from poorer backgrounds into our elites, but one that lifts the prospects of neglected communities across our countries.

Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust

  • To read the Sutton Trust's report on the academic attainment of disadvantaged young people, visit their website

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Lee Elliot Major

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