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“My private school peers can struggle to grasp the privileges we’ve had”

As a private school alumna, I can see the cyclical nature of British power structures playing out in real time around me, writes Martha Loach

Langley School, an HMC private school in Norfolk

Having attended an independent school between the ages of 12 and 18 thanks to a generous scholarship, I am deeply bothered by the private-state school divide that mars this country.

The evidence is clear. We know that the contemporary elite in Britain is overwhelmingly drawn from traditional bastions of power.

We know that education is central to Britain’s self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing power structures.

And we know that those who attended private schools are significantly overrepresented in Britain’s upper echelons.

To underline some key statistics, alumni from the nine Clarendon schools (the most well-known, and expensive, British private schools) represent less than one in every 500 pupils. Yet they are 94 times more likely to reach the British elite than those from any other school.[1]

According to sociologist Aaron Reeves, the Clarendon schools are the “chief nurseries of the British elite,” acting as prestigious training grounds for society’s powerful.[2] 

Even studying at a more modest private school, my teenage years were characterised by myriad forms of privilege.

Identified as one of the ‘bright’ pupils, I was treated to specialist Oxbridge workshops and invited to the Head Teacher’s office for dedicated personal statement-writing sessions.

To secure those top university places, the hours invested per pupil at my school undoubtedly eclipsed children’s experience at neighbouring state schools.

The Sutton Trust uncover how 17 per cent of the elite attended an independent school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, forming a “strong ‘pipeline’ into the highest status jobs.”[3]

Central to these elite educational pathways are networks. [4]

According to the Sutton Trust, “affluent young people benefit from networks that provide access to top professions”.[5] 

Pupils at independent schools attend occupational societies and highbrow career events, convincing them of their belonging in prestigious places and alongside powerful individuals.

An avid pianist and violinist, my timetable was crammed with orchestra rehearsals, choir concerts, theatre productions, and so on. These experiences nurtured confidence and a familiarity with performance and public speaking.

Meanwhile, a highlight of the school calendar was a week-long series of workshops and talks from impressive local individuals.

I also recall an evening when my peers’ parents shared insights into their careers and offered advice for how to break into highly paid professions such as medicine, law, and business.

These network advantages are amplified at more elite independent schools.

The Old Etonian, Ivo Delingpole boasts how “nearly every night, a plethora of speakers, the leaders in their field, come and speak to boys about their specialist subjects.”[6]

Delingpole, muses how the “fabled quality of Etonian charm” enables former pupils to “oil” important individuals.[7]

He thanks the frequent participation “in intelligent conversation with grown ups” for cultivating the “correct etiquette,” of which the “most significant” attribute is “how to socialise.”[8]

The fusion of social capital and cultural markers is reinforced beyond the school walls as private school alumni networks create webs of privilege.

These alumni networks are prefixed with ‘Old’ followed by a modification of the school’s name – so encouraging an enduring connection between former students (e.g. Old Wykehamist or Old Norvicensian).

This parallels Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that the “application of a common name” strengthens social capital.[9]

It seems to me that passage through prestigious schools acts as a “status marker”.

And this “multiplier effect” underlines how members of private school networks gain access to valuable, yet elusive, resources that ease their rise to influence.[11]

Reflecting on my early career path, I appreciate that a privileged adolescence really represents the absence of hurdles.

It is this less visible manifestation of privilege that I suspect some other private school alumni may struggle to grapple with.

Without understanding the ramifications of their own fortune, private school alumni contribute to society in a way that exacerbates disparity.

Entrenching the private-state school gulf, a shared privileged background ensures elite cohesion.

Even in my 20s, I already see privileged friends and acquaintances entering a narrow set of highly renumerated and prestigious sectors.

Implicit within this trend are similar interests, aspirations, and beliefs. I witness the cyclical nature of British power structures in real time.

When it comes to the most elite boarding schools, the uniting power of this common uncommon experience has a darker side.

Privately-educated author Richard Beard explains how his public boarding school produced “a shared mindset,” one that was characterised by a “deep emotional austerity” and a “collective narrowing of vision” in response to the trauma of childhood familial detachment.[15]

The psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien claims that ‘Boarding School Syndrome’ entails emotional detachment, cynicism, defensive and offensive arrogance, stoicism and cliquism.[16]

Beard narrates how “gangster loyalty” bred a superiority over the “less special and often stupid” masses, “school was where we went, aged eight, to learn to despise other people.”[17]

Elite networks exist, therefore, not only as a vital source of social capital, but as a protective barrier against internal trauma and the external ‘threat’ of the uncivilized crowds.

Whilst bequeathing upon members a familiarity with the corridors of power and the tools to woo influential individuals, this cliquey web shuns the qualities of a true leader.

Serious empathy, compassion, imagination, collaboration, genuinely deep bravery all fall by the wayside.

In my opinion, elite networks shield members from a true and genuine life experience that might otherwise grant them a more rounded perspective and understanding of others.

Mingling amongst a mere seven per cent of the population acts as a stunting influence.

The diverse cornucopia of knowledge and experience offered by the remaining 93 per cent offers is too often neglected.

A toxic cocktail of arrogance and ignorance drapes itself along the Commons’ benches and has embedded itself in its culture.[18]

Elite networks fashion a cloak of ignorance that shelters the powerful, buttresses the status quo and harms us all. I know it. I have seen it.


Martha Loach is a programme manager at a social impact organisation. Growing up in Bristol, she attended a small private school on a scholarship from years 7 to 13. Martha went on to study politics and history at the University of Edinburgh and public policy at the LSE. 


[1] Aaron Reeves, Sam Friedman, Charles Rahal and Magne Flemmen, “The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment 1897 to 2016,” American Sociological Review 62, no. 6 (2017): 1139, 1153.

[2] ibid., 1140.

[3] The Sutton Trust, “Elitist Britain 2019: The educational backgrounds of Britain’s leading people,” (2019): 2.

[4] Sutton Trust, “The class ceiling: Increasing access to the leader professions,” (2019): 10; Shane Watters, “Old Boy Networks: The Relationship Between Elite Schooling, Social Capital, and Positions of Power in British Society,” in Aaron Koh and Jane Kenway (eds.) Elite Schools: Multiple Geographies of Privilege (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 113.

[5] Sutton Trust, “The class ceiling,” 10.

[6] Ivo Delingpole, “Eton’s recipe for success,” Spectator: Life (26 September 2015).

[7] Delingpole.

[8] ibid.

[9] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J Richardson (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986), 251.

[10] Ibid., 9; Reeves et al, “Decline and Persistence,” 1141.

[11] ibid., 21.

[12] John Scott, Who Rules Britain? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991), 102-117.

[13] ibid., 1141.

[14] J.P. Sapinski and William K. Carroll, “Interlocking directorates and corporate networks,” in Andreas Nölke and Christian May (eds) Handbook of the International Political Economy of the Corporation, (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing: 2018), 182; Marta Geletkanycz and Donald Hambrick, “The external ties of top executives: Implications for strategic choice and performance,” Administrative Science Quarterly 42, no.4 (1997): 655, 657.

[15] Richard Beard, “Why public schoolboys like me and Boris Johnson aren’t fit to run our country,” The Observer, 8 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/aug/08/public-schoolboys-boris-johnson-sad-little-boys-richard-beard.

[16] Joy Schaverien, Boarding School Syndrome, (Oxford: Routledge, 2015).

[17] Beard.

[18] Kevin Rawlinson, “‘Sit up!’ – Jacob Rees-Mogg under fire for slouching in Commons,” The Guardian, 3 September 2019.

Discussion

  1. I went to Christ’s Hospital in the 1950s, which still prides itself in cleaving to the historic purpose of these places in taking in a majority on assisted places, but my forays onto the official and unofficial websites have still discovered a nasty strain of snobbery where one ex-pupil actually exclaimed that “not everyone can get a good education so why not us?” Where else in western Europe would you hear this sort of comment, I wonder?

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