HomeResearchThe Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy

The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy



The decline and persistence of the old boy: Private schools and elite recruitment 1897 to 2016


A. Reeves, S. Friedman, C. Rahal and M. Flemmen (2017) in American Sociological Review: 1-28

What’s it about?

When people in Britain rise to positions of public influence – in whatever sphere – their lives have been recorded in Who’s Who for more than a century.

This unique record of Britain’s elite, which includes where they went to school and which influential clubs they belonged to, provides a window on the influence of private schools in this country.

“The Decline and Persistence” research draws on this record to paint a fascinating picture of how this influence has changed.


The researchers used statistical methods to analyse 5-year age cohorts of Who’s Who entrants, comparing them with cohorts of the whole population aged over 35 drawn from the Census.

They also matched in other historical information, including club membership data from Whitaker’s Almanack.

The research is scientifically peer-reviewed and open access.

What are the findings?

  • In the 19th century, three in every five people (60%) achieving entry in Who’s Who had been educated at private schools.

  • However in the 20th century, that proportion declined to around 45 percent.

  • But in the 21st century the privately educated proportion of new Who’s Who entrants has stabilised at nearly 45 percent.

  • Alumni of the ‘Clarendon Schools’ – comprising Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul’s, Westminster, and Winchester College – are today 94 times more likely to be a member of the British elite, compared with all those who had been to all other schools.

  • Entry to members-only private clubs is another key way in which private schools are found to propel their alumni into elite positions.

  • Although club membership has been declining over time among Who’s Who entrants, Clarendon school alumni (and the alumni of other leading private secondary schools) are consistently more likely than others to hold memberships of private clubs.

  • The findings demonstrate both how, over more than a century, the rise of state education has partly opened up British society, yet also how private education retains its hold on elite positions of influence.

What are the limitations of this research?

Entry into Who’s Who is not a perfect measure of being in the British elite.

However, this research won the 2018 European Academy of Sociology Distinguished Publication Prize.

Explained by: Francis Green, professor of work and education economics at UCL Institute of Education


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