As Oxbridge backs into a corner, flitting between meek surrender and cowering under the weight of its own impossibly storied edifice, feebly swatting away the claims of parochial southern elitism another report comes out today about the Clarendon Schools and their propulsion of their pupils to the power elite. Whilst it may well be common sense to think that the rigged game is rigged, what is perhaps surprising is the degree to which that rigging happens and when said rigging begins to be rug.
The report that will shock no one per se but remains somewhat troubling; (Lead) Authored by Dr. Aaron Reeves and Dr. Sam Friedman at LSE and published in the American Sociological Review; has demonstrated the level of institutional bias surrounding a handful of top flight schools. The so-called Clarendon Schools are Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester College and after delving into 125 years’ worth of Who’s Who (a self congratulatory list of pre-eminent MPs, Lords & Ladies, heads of museums, art organisations, senior civil servants, big cheeses and head honchos) it was discovered that attendees of those schools are a whopping 94 times more likely to move and shake in Britain’s upper echelons of power. Despite educating a paltry 0.15% of the population they account for nearly 10% of all the Who’s Who entrants.
Naturally during that 125 year period they have fallen a little out of favour and more (ahem) progressive schools such as Marlborough, St. Edward’s and Wellington and further afield have been allowed a seat at the table which has seen some of their influence wane from the start of the 20th century, but the study concluded that mild blip has been curtailed over the last decade and a half and they remain ‘extraordinarily powerful’.
The United Kingdom has boasted 54 prime ministers in its time and of them 67% were former pupils of the Clarendon Schools. Even in those twin bastions of social mobility, Oxford and Cambridge, alumni from the schools remain roughly twice as likely to reach those positions at the top table. These are not schools that have always enjoyed top honours when it comes to league table excellence but there seems to be something in the character of the schools that rubs off on their young charges – something perhaps to do with their extra curricular activities, a full rich curriculum or as is likely the case a sense of entitlement that is so ingrained, that all they have to do is reach out and pluck their destiny at will. I don’t say that in any way sneeringly, it’s both self evidently bad but also to imbue one’s students with the confidence of expectation is in its own way also incredibly positive.
Let me be clear, I’m not against public schools and I am pro social mobility, but with all the reports recently it feels that in the rush to demonstrate equality it is tipping towards the unpleasant smell of positive discrimination. I also strongly believe I don’t believe that wealthy students should be denied the opportunity to study in elite colleges simply as a PR stunt to assuage middle class guilt, if they’ve earned that right. Equally, a student from a disadvantaged background shouldn’t be overlooked because their skin or accent doesn’t ‘fit’. Equality is about what is right, it stands to reason that top flight universities and schools wield a disproportionate amount of clout in terms of their alumni but equally many of those people may not represent the best and the brightest merely the most grasping, landed, bellicose and ambitious. If those same intellects were at a secondary modern in Burnley they would be unlikely to soar so high and that is self evidently wrong. As a country we are facing an existential crisis not just in education but in every facet of our lives, the precipice of Brexit looms and we need the greatest possible minds working together for the common good to try and avoid the current pile of dogshit it looks likely to be.
There has been lots of talk of equality and social mobility in recent weeks and rightly so, but let’s not conflate equal opportunity with lowering standards to accommodate borderline cases, as with positive action movements across the world this can lead to cries of patronization. Today Theresa May talked about women having to ‘prove’ that they are the equal of men, which is in itself the opposite of equality. As a white, middle class, privately educated male graduate I’ve never had to prove myself to anyone, and just as well, as I’d likely come up wanting. It is an assumed truth that for me it is a level playing field and to gain opportunities I don’t have to ‘overcome’ anything I simply have to be better than the competition, I don’t have to first earn my seat at the table before I’m allowed to play the game. Standards are there for a reason, they represent the level of academic excellence and rigour required and wanted by the colleges, where it falls down is that when you have a cohort of applicants with similar grades and experiences it’s easier (lazier) to default to the known quantities. Without question a BME candidate from a rough housing estate in Oldham who has achieved the necessary grades to attend a premier university has already proven themselves to have more mettle, more nous and more self sufficiency than a wealthy socialite with one to one tuition, connections and the ear of the VC, and surely that is who should be leading from the front, moving into the corridors of power and having the opportunity to learn in the best possible environment. The patronization sticks uncomfortably in the throat when even the accompanying language surrounding the subject uses terms like ‘given a place’, no, they earned it, unlike many of the gilded gentry from the Clarendon set who were gifted the places by birthright.
Why should I care though? I’m the scion of an Oxford grad, a wealthy father and grew up with many of the trappings of that world. But. But my children did not – I didn’t seize that birthright, not through principles but through a lack of ambition and indifference to my future when I was 17, ironically having lived in that world I know that regardless of the opportunities you are presented with you still need to grasp them. I was entitled only in so much as I assumed everything would just work out as it had done to that point – but that was wrong. As a result of that laziness my children don’t enjoy those advantages and now to boot they were born in *holds breath* the North!
My grandfather made his way up to Oxford back when class prejudice was even more persuasive (https://edducan.com/2017/06/30/you-cant-always-get-what-you-want-but-if-you-try-sometimes-you-get-what-you-need-how-my-grandfather-got-to-oxford/https://edducan.com/2017/06/30/you-cant-always-get-what-you-want-but-if-you-try-sometimes-you-get-what-you-need-how-my-grandfather-got-to-oxford/) but things have changed again and I want… No. I need to believe that my children and indeed all children shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of the father, they should have the capacity to go wherever their ambition takes them and not be reliant on an antiquated old boy system that wears as a point of pride the number of PMs they can boast about. It should always be the best person for the job, the place, the whatever, not the best person as represented by 0.15% of the population.
So if you aren’t part of that illustrious 0.15% how can you, how can your children, my children overcome their disadvantaged starting point? There’s no one answer but at the same time there’s an incredibly, elegant and simple solution that Steve Martin once said, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ And, to help you on your way (shameless plug) read this book to help achieve that goodness – https://edducan.com/is-your-school-lying-to-you-get-the-career-you-want-get-the-life-you-deserve/